What is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a virtual or digital currency also known as a cryptocurrency created by the mysterious (and unknown) Satoshi Nakamoto. Bitcoin is like other currencies: it can be used to purchase items locally and electronically. However, bitcoin differs from conventional money in that it is decentralized and fully independent. No institution controls the Bitcoin Network and it is not tied to a country like the US Dollar. The entire network is maintained by individuals and organizations referred to as Bitcoin Miners. Bitcoin miners process and verify bitcoin transactions through a mathematical algorithm based on the cryptographic (hence the name cryptocurrency) hash algorithm SHA256.

Bitcoin is Decentralized

No central authority controls Bitcoin or its network of transactions. A community of Bitcoin miners make up the network, processing the transactions. If any changes are made to Bitcoin by a developer or developers using GitHub, a 51% majority of the miners hashing power must agree upon it. This insures that, in theory, no individual can steal your bitcoins or print (create) more.

 

Bitcoin Wallet and Transactions

Though each Bitcoin transaction is recorded in a public log called the block chain, names of buyers and sellers are never revealed – only their Bitcoin wallet addresses. Each wallet address is unique and can’t be linked to one unless the creator of that specific bitcoin address reveals himself.

1Lst6Ro8r5C7QrxAuoZg1LJAuQtP3W9uV2 is an example of a unique bitcoin address used for receiving and sending bitcoins.

To send, receive and create Bitcoin addresses you must have a  Bitcoin wallet. A Bitcoin wallet is a software that’s essentially your bank account for bitcoins. Your wallet can hold as many bitcoins and Bitcoin addresses you’d like, and you can own as many wallets you want. While bitcoin can be anonymous, that doesn’t mean it is. If you purchase your bitcoins on a Bitcoin trading platform or exchange that has your information, the bitcoins you buy can be tied back to you.

Bitcoin Transactions Can not be Reversed

When you send bitcoins to a Bitcoin address, you can not reverse the transaction. Unlike credit cards where transaction can be disputed or reversed, bitcoins are nonrefundable. Bitcoin can not be replaced either. If your wallet is stored on your hard drive and not in a  “cloud”, you could lose your bitcoins if you are hacked, get a virus or if your computer dies. These lost bitcoins can never be retrieved. That’s why it is so important to take regular backups and implement measures for Bitcoin wallet security.

Furthermore, merchants cannot initiate charges on you as they can and do with credit cards. Each transaction must be initiated by the wallet holder, further underlining the advantages of the Bitcoin system.

Bitcoin is Secure

Proponents of Bitcoin tout its formidable security, and with good reason. In theory, unless 51% of the system is controlled by one party, Bitcoin is virtually unhackable. For instance, in order for someone to change a transaction or double spend a Bitcoin, they would have to obtain majority control of the system and modify every miner in this majority. When there is a disagreement in the block chain, the system overrides the minority with the data agreed upon by the majority.

However, there have been concerns that different mining companies and mining pools should be able to reach 51% of the Bitcoin hashing power and perform a so called 51% attack on the Bitcoin network.

Why use Bitcoins?

Bitcoins are attractive to a large number of people of an equally large number of reasons. Bitcoins can be anonymous, near instantaneous and offer a level of control over your money like no other traditional currency. There are no banks that can take away your money, and Bitcoins are deflationary in nature, while e.g. USD is inflationary where your money depreciate over time. Bitcoins are also speculative in nature drawing the attention of investors.

Merchants are drawn to Bitcoin because of the low fees. Merchants typically pay 2-3% fees from credit card processors, whereas many types of transactions are free with Bitcoin. Transactions are free if several conditions are met. Any transactions that don’t meet thee requirements are charged 0.1mBTC (0.0001 BTC) per 1,000 bytes. Typical transactions are 500 bytes but do not meet the priority requirement and thus are charged a 0.1mBTC fee regardless how many coins are transferred. You can view the live Bitcoin price here.

How to Obtain Bitcoins

There are several ways to obtain bitcoins. The most common way is to purchase them on a Bitcoin exchange. You can also purchase bitcoins on Ebay locally through e.g. LocalBitcoins.com.

Bitcoins can also be obtained by becoming a part of the Bitcoin network and start mining for bitcoins. Before the days of ASIC miners, individuals could set up their computers to mine and earn bitcoins easily. Those days are long gone due to the difficulty to mine Bitcoin, the difficulty level of Bitcoin, has risen enormous making it harder and harder to earn bitcoins with the same equipment. Becoming a miner and seeing positive ROI would mean a substantial investment and is now left to the big companies and wealthy investors. For most individuals, purchasing your Bitcoin through a Bitcoin Exchange is the best option. You can also find ways to earn free bitcoins.

While it is true that Bitcoin can copy these features if the developers or community desires, fully-functioning altcoins are much better “cryptocurrency laboratories” than Bitcoin’s testnet. Finally, Altcoins give Bitcoin healthy competition. Altcoins give cryptocurrency users alternative options and forces Bitcoin’s developers to remain active and continue innovating. If users do not feel that Bitcoin satisfies their digital desires, they can adopt an altcoin. If enough users left Bitcoin for a particular altcoin, the Bitcoin developers would have to adopt the features the community desired or risk losing its place as the preeminent cryptocurrency.

What Are Altcoins and Why Do They Matter?

Many Bitcoin enthusiasts argue that altcoins are completely unnecessary and will not succeed because they cannot rival the infrastructure Bitcoin boasts. However, altcoins serve an important role. Decentralization is one of Bitcoin’s most prominent goals, and altcoins further decentralize the cryptocurrency community.

What Was the First Altcoin?

Created in April 2011, Namecoin was the first altcoin. Although it also functions as a currency, Namecoin’s primary purpose is to decentralize domain-name registration, which makes internet censorship much more difficult. As its place among the top ten cryptocurrency market caps suggests, Namecoin has remained one of the most successful altcoins throughout its short lifespan.

Should I Invest in Altcoins?

Due to how recent cryptocurrency was invented and how rapidly the landscape changes, all cryptocurrency investments carry a great deal of risk. Even Bitcoin–by far the most stable cryptocurrency–exhibits price volatility on a regular basis.

By comparison, however, altcoins are exponentially more volatile. Because they have such low market caps (the total value of all coins combined), altcoin markets are highly prone to price manipulation. Wealthy traders–colloquially called “whales”–often inject large amounts of capital into low-priced coins to build hype and cause the price to skyrocket. Once the price has risen considerably, the whales sell their coins on exchanges at a massive profit, hurting many gullible investors in the process. This method is known as a “pump and dump.” Not only does this hurt greedy traders who did not take the time to do their homework, but it often proves to be the breath of an altcoin’s brief lifespan.

To avoid losing all your money in a pump and dump, focus on long-term investments in coins you believe have immense potential and exhibit overall health. Generally, healthy altcoins possess strong communities, exhibit high liquidity, and have developers who proactively improve the coin’s source code (though not necessary, many users also prefer developers who reveal their true identities). CoinGecko’s comprehensive coin metric analysis algorithm statistically analyzes these three important factors and ranks coins according to overall strength.

What is Cryptocurrency?

A cryptocurrency is a medium of exchange like normal currencies such as USD, but designed for the purpose of exchanging digital information through a process made possible by certain principles of cryptography. Cryptography is used to secure the transactions and to control the creation of new coins. The first cryptocurrency to be created was Bitcoin back in 2009. Today there are hundreds of other cryptocurrencies, often referred to as Altcoins.

Put another way, cryptocurrency is electricity converted into lines of code with monetary value. In the simplest of forms, cryptocurrency is digital currency.

Unlike centralized banking, like the Federal Reserve System, where governments control the value of a currency like USD through the process of printing fiat money, government has no control over cryptocurrencies as they are fully decentralized.

Most cryptocurrencies are designed to decrease in production over time like Bitcoin, which creates a market cap on them. That’s different from fiat currencies where financial institutions can always create more, hence inflation. Bitcoin will never have more than 21 million coins in circulation. The technical system on which all cryptocurrencies are based on was created by Satoshi Nakamoto.

While hundreds of different cryptocurrency specifications exist, most are derived from one of two protocols; Proof-of-work or Proof-of-stake. All cryptocurrencies are maintained by a community of cryptocurrency miners who are members of the general public that have set up their computers or ASIC machines to participate in the validation and processing of transactions.

History of Cryptocurrency

The first cryptocurrency was Bitcoin. Bitcoin was created in 2009 by a pseudonymous developer named Satoshi Nakamoto. Bitcoin uses SHA-256, which is a set of cryptographic hash functions designed by the U.S National Security Agency. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency that is based on the proof-of-work system.

In April 2011, Namecoin, the first altcoin, was created to form a decentralized DNS to make internet censorship more difficult. In October 2011, Litecoin was released and became the first successful cryptocurrency to use scrypt as its hash function rather than SHA-256. This gave the general public the ability to mine for litecoins without the purchase of specific hardware such as the ASIC machines used to mine Bitcoin.

Cryptocurrency Security

The security of cryptocurrencies is two part. The first part comes from the difficulty in finding hash set intersections, a task done by miners. The second and more likely of the two cases is a “51%” attack“. In this scenario, a miner who has the mining power of more than 51% of the network, can take control of the global blockchain ledger and generate an alternative block-chain. Even at this point the attacker is limited to what he can do. The attacker could reverse his own transactions or block other transactions.

Cryptocurrencies are also less susceptible to seizure by law enforcement or having transaction holds placed on them from acquirers such as Paypal. All cryptocurrencies are pseudo-anonymous, and some coins have added features to create true anonymity.