A cryptocurrency is a type of digital money created from code. They function autonomously, outside of traditional banking and government systems.
Cryptocurrencies use cryptography to secure transactions and regulate the creation of additional units. Bitcoin, the original and by far most well-known cryptocurrency, was launched in January 2009. Today there are over 1,000 cryptocurrencies to trade available online.
Cryptocurrencies differ significantly from traditional fiat currencies. Nonetheless, you can still buy and sell them like any other asset. You can now also trade on the price movements of various cryptocurrencies via CFDs and spread betting.
Cryptocurrencies fall under the banner of digital currencies, alternative currencies and virtual currencies. They were initially designed to provide an alternative payment method for online transactions. However, cryptocurrencies have not yet been widely accepted by businesses and consumers, and they are currently too volatile to be suitable as methods of payment. As a decentralised currency, it was developed to be free from government oversite or influence, and the cryptocurrency economy is instead monitored by peer-to-peer internet protocol. The individual units that make up a cryptocurrency are encrypted strings of data that have been encoded to represent one unit.
Bitcoin is credited with being the first decentralised cryptocurrency. Like all cryptocurrencies, it’s controlled through a blockchain transaction database, which functions as a distributed public ledger. Bitcoin was created by Satoshi Nakamoto – whether the name refers to an individual or a group is unknown.
A feature of most cryptocurrencies is that they have been designed to slowly reduce production. Consequently, only a limited number of units of the currency will ever be in circulation. This mirrors commodities such as gold and other precious metals. For example, the number of bitcoins is not expected to exceed 21 million. Cryptocurrencies such as ethereum, on the other hand, work slightly differently. Issuance is capped at 18 million ethereum tokens per year, which equals 25% of the initial supply. Limiting the number of bitcoins provides ‘scarcity’, which in turn gives it value. Some claim that bitcoin’s creator actually modelled the cryptocurrency on precious metals. As a result, mining becomes more difficult over time, as the mining reward gets halved every few years until it reaches zero.
There are a number of key principles that govern cryptocurrency use, exchange and transactions.
Cryptocurrencies use advanced cryptography in a number of ways. Cryptography evolved out of the need for secure communication methods in the second world war, in order to convert easily-readable information into encrypted code. Modern cryptography has come a long way since then, and in today’s digital world it’s based primarily on computer science and mathematical theory. It also draws from communication science, physics and electrical engineering.
Two main elements of cryptography apply to cryptocurrencies – hashing and digital signatures:
A blockchain is the decentralised, public ledger or list of a cryptocurrency’s transactions. Completed blocks, comprised of the latest transactions, are recorded and added to the blockchain. They are stored in chronological order as an open, permanent and verifiable record. A peer-to-peer network of market participants manage blockchains, and they follow a set protocol for validating new blocks. Each ‘node’ or computer connected to the network automatically downloads a copy of the blockchain. This allows everyone to track transactions without the need for central record keeping.
Blockchain technology creates a record that can’t be changed without the agreement of the rest of the network. The blockchain concept is attributed to bitcoin’s founder, Satoshi Nakamoto. This concept has been the inspiration for other applications beyond digital cash and currency.
Block mining is the process of attaching new transaction records as blocks to the blockchain. In the process – using bitcoin as an example – new bitcoins get produced, adding to the total number of coins in circulation. Mining requires a specific piece of software that is used to solve mathematical puzzles, and this validates the legitimate transactions which make up blocks. These blocks get added to the public ledger (blockchain) about every 10 minutes. As the software solves transactions the miner is rewarded with a set amount of bitcoins. The faster a miner’s hardware can process the mathematical problem, the more likely it is to validate a transaction and earn the bitcoin reward.
Bitcoin is credited as the original and most well-known cryptocurrency. Satoshi Nakamoto, a person or group of people under the name, created it in 2009. Arguably, its characteristics more closely resemble commodities rather than conventional currencies. This is reflected in that fact that it is now used more as a form of investment than a method of payment. As of June 2018, there were around 17 million bitcoins in circulation (there may be a finite number of 21 million available). Traders can either purchase bitcoin through an exchange, or speculate on its prices movements via CFDs and spread betting. Find out more on how to trade bitcoin or view our specialist article on how to short bitcoin.
Ethereum is relatively new in the cryptocurrency world, having launched in 2015. It operates in a similar way to the bitcoin network, allowing people to send and receive tokens representing value via an open network. The tokens are called ether, and this is what is used as payment on the network. Ethereum’s primary use, however, is to operate as smart contracts rather than as a form of payment. Smart contracts are scripts of code which can be deployed in the ethereum blockchain. The limit on ether also works slightly differently to bitcoin. Issuance is capped at 18 million ether per year which equals 25% of the initial supply. So, while the absolute issuance is fixed, relative inflation decreases every year. Learn more about ethereum
Bitcoin cash (BCH) is a cryptocurrency and payment network created as a result of a hard fork with Bitcoin in December 2017. A hard fork occurs when members of the cryptocurrency community have a disagreement, usually regarding improvements to the software used within the network. In this case it was a disagreement around a proposal to increase the block size. After a fork, the blockchain splits in two and it is left to the miners and the wider community to decide which cryptocurrency to align themselves with. When the bitcoin hard fork took place, one bitcoin cash token was typically awarded for every bitcoin held (although some exchanges chose not to recognise bitcoin cash). Learn more about bitcoin cash
Litecoin (LTC) is a peer-to-peer cryptocurrency that was set up by Charlie Lee (a former Google employee) in 2011. It was an early bitcoin spinoff, or ‘altcoin’ and initially intended for smaller value transactions than those made using bitcoin. Technically speaking it was created to be almost identical to bitcoin, but it has some notable differences and improvements. For example, litecoin can process blocks up to four times quicker than bitcoin. It also requires more sophisticated technology to mine, but the total number of coins available has a much larger cap – it is currently set to 84 million, which is four times greater than bitcoin. Learn more about litecoin
Ripple (XRP) is a network that allows the transfer of any currency (including both fiat currencies and cryptocurrencies) around the world. It aims to ensure secure, fast and low cost transfers across the network, with no risk of fraud or chargeback. The network is considerably faster than bitcoin – it is able to settle transactions in just a few seconds. The minimum transaction cost is also much lower, which is one of the reasons that ripple has been increasingly adopted by banks for settlement. Ripple is also the name given to the native cryptocurrency (XRP) used on the ripple network. Learn more about ripple
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can best be described as potential currencies. As noted above, they are not widely accepted today as a medium of exchange. They have significant limitations holding them back from developing into fully-fledged currencies. There are also questions around whether cryptocurrencies are just part of a financial bubble. But it’s possible, though unlikely, that they could become more widely used in the future as a medium of exchange. The potential uses of the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies is also a matter of interest. It’s possible that this technology will be adopted for other purposes, including legal transactions, security programs and voting systems.
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