It looks like GCHQ have just heard about the correct horse ...

Announcing NetVend pre-beta for interested developers. NetVend is a virtual vending machine that runs on Bitcoin and has vast potential for many applications. More info in post.

Hey Bitcoiners. I've been working on this project ever since I heard about the idea about 4 months ago. I'm extremely excited to announce the beginning of the beta testing phase of this project. We're open to any interested developers, and will be funding as much experimentation as we can. The entire project is open-source; you can find the server code here. The service is hard to describe, so I'll be wordy. I'll bold the important parts as a sort of running TL;DR.
EDIT: There is a more technical writeup for those interested here, which also goes into the potential to harness the server for social networking purposes.
Creating a blog is easy, but anything more ambitious gets complex extremely fast. To handle money, a deep understanding of either a country's tax law (and the hassle of handling fiat currency online) or the intricacies of using Bitcoin is required. To offer a truly unique automated service, a very significant depth of computer science must be understood, and a server must be administrated and maintained. Before too long, a person with a new idea is facing extremely daunting hurdles--hurdles that most Internet users have no idea how to even begin overcoming, and would take even experienced developers a significant amount of time to conquer. How many ideas have we lost, not because the idea would fail, but because the cost of implementation is just too high?
Imagine if every internet user had easy and cheap access to a neutral server that solves many of these problems.
NetVend is a server that allows users to create arbitrary online services capable of accepting commands, processing queries, storing data, and accepting payments. The server keeps track of the Bitcoin address of each account, and commands must be signed with the corresponding private key. Each command incurs an extremely tiny fee (for example, a penny would pay for over 100,000 NetVend tips). Interfacing with the server is extremely simple using our open-source apis--we currently have one for Python, we have a javascript one nearly completed, and others are on the way. However, the server can be accessed by any program capable of signing messages and making http requests, and the source code for the apis we do have make it clear how to do this.
There are two very basic steps to begin to use the server. This article assumes use of the Python api.
First, the account must have funds. For the time being, these will be provided to anyone expressing interest in playing around with the server--just let us know which address you'll be using, and we'll send you some credit via a NetVend tip. The server also supports deposits, but we're wary about offering this too freely until the server is more fully tested. If you're interested in trying out the deposit feature, contact me and I'll help you out.
Second, import the api and call one of the two following functions:
netvend.setPrivkey(your_privkey) netvend.setSeed('some seed') 
Alternatively, you could use the api's generateCommand functions to generate any command, return this command to the user, and request that they sign it manually. You can then take that signature, and call sendSignedCommand. This is more of a hassle, but allows trustless apps to interface with the server. This article will assume that the private key is set, as this allows for simpler examples, but a few minor edits would make any application work in a trustless manner.
NetVend has three commands: Data, Tip, and Query. Each command has a fee on the order of 30 milliSatoshis (1000 mSat = 1 Satoshi). Bitcoin deposits are tracked internally and deducted with precision to the microSatoshi (1000000 uSat = 1 Satoshi) automatically and instantly.
Data:
response = netvend.commandData("Your first NetVend data upload!") success = response[0] if (success) data_id = response[1]['command_response'] #the value of data_id can now be used by anyone with the Query command to retrieve this data entry. 
Data stores arbitrary data into the database, which is public and transparent. This data can be retrieved by anyone running the Query command, and is easy to be mined, sorted, and just generally analyzed if anyone's interested enough to structure an SQL query. However, this data may also be encrypted using any encryption techniques the developer wants to use, since the server processes the command regardless of the nature of the data. This will enable clever developers to quickly and easily build apps that can dependably utilize a neutral storage space for any encrypted or non-encrypted communication the app needs to use. Note that because this is a paid service, the server has a more inherent tendency to stability that other similar free services do not. With a sufficient community, it can be assumed that a fairly recent backup of the database will always exist somewhere. This means that even in the event of the NetVend server disappearing without a trace, another incarnation of it can easily be created and restored to a very recent state. In summary, the Data command stores a piece of data, publicly, for anyone to easily find, forever.
Current Beta fee: 30 mSat.
Tip:
response = netvend.commandTip(aFriendsAddress,5000000,0) #tip aFriendsAddress 5 satoshis' worth of uSats, referencing 0 as a data entry (interpreted as no data entry) success = response[0] if (success) tip_id = response[1]['command_response'] #the value of tip_id can now be used in a manner similar to data_id, seen above. 
Tip sends internal credit from one account to another, specified by that account's Bitcoin address. These are not native Bitcoin transactions, and therefore they require some degree of trust--but are still verifiable in their own way (see the technical writeup). However, because the blockchain isn't used, some limitations of traditional Bitcoin transactions are avoided. Tips are much cheaper than Bitcoin transactions (one Bitcoin transaction cost would pay for the cost of over 1 million NetVend tips), they're virtually instantaneous, and they have the precision of 1/1000000 of a Satoshi (1 uSat). Because NetVend accounts are based on a bitcoin address and the corresponding signatures, funds can be sent to any Bitcoin user regardless of whether they currently use the service. This is because the recipient can always claim or control those funds by sending commands signed with their private key.
Additionally, these tips can reference a data entry. When used in concert with the Data command, a tip can be sent with a sort of memo that describes some request or explains the tip in some way. These tips can be constructed by users directly or by the programs developers make. In both cases, these tips can be used as a paid request for any arbitrary service, automated or not.
These tips can be viewed and analyzed by Query in the same way that data entries can.
Current Beta Fee: 30 mSat.
Query:
query = "SELECT id,data FROM data WHERE id < 10" #SELECT id,data Get the data id and the data itself #FROM data from the "data" table #WHERE id < 10 for the first 10 data entries response = netvend.commandQuery(query,2000) #send the query with a max_fee of 2000 uSats (=0.002 Satoshis) success = response[0] if (success): rows = response[1]['command_response']['rows'] for row in rows: print "data entry number " + str(row[0]) + " says " + str(row[1]) #iterates through all returned rows, and prints out the data id and data of each entry 
Query accesses any of the public database tables (accounts, commands, data, tips) with any valid SQL SELECT query. All valid SQL SELECT queries are accepted and returned, excepting timeout issues. This allows anything (again, user or script) to comb through all public data (remember, however, that data can be encrypted) with that most perceptive tool--an SQL SELECT query, either simple or complex. This is how a client must gain any information about an account or anything else on the server directly, which means that a new account must receive either a direct Bitcoin deposit or a smaller tip from another NetVend account to access any information (Again, during the beta, we will be funding as much of this activity as we can).
(To those who haven't used SQL before, an SQL SELECT statement can be either very basic (for example, get the balance of every NetVend account) or extremely complex and perceptive)
Current Beta Fee: about 1.012 mSat, but varies based on complexity of query and size of returned data. See the netvend source code for details.
I've written an example service that facilitates user-vs-user rock-paper-scissors bets, which is currently operating on address 18UjjHg7PHg5YsCdhdmFSkQhfBbt3R2RpH (EDIT: it's only a script on my computer, so it isn't actually online--although it is tested, and you can try running it yourself). It accepts tips, charges a fee, and then sends the combined ante to the winner of the bet. The ante is whatever is left over after deducting the service fee.
If you'd like to experiment with the server, you can request funds from me directly, and I'll try to accommodate as many of you as I can. Alternatively, if you use netvend.setSeed('correct horse battery staple'), there is some credit sitting in that account that you can use. You can then tip this away into another account, but please try to be conservative so others can experiment as well. I've been using the python command prompt to send simple commands to the server, and it seems like a good way for anyone to get started.
If you guys have any questions at all, I'll be more than happy to answer them or help with any trouble you're having. bardiharborow has been helping a lot with all of this, and might be around to answer questions as well.
Thanks for reading!
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