But while cryptocurrencies are more used for payment, its use as a means of speculation and a store of value dwarfs the payment aspects. Cryptocurrencies gave birth to an incredibly dynamic, fast-growing market for investors and speculators. Exchanges like Okcoin, Poloniex or shapeshift enables the trade of hundreds of cryptocurrencies. Their daily trade volume exceeds that of major European stock exchanges.
While it’s still early days, Mist, MetaMask and a variety of other browsers look set to make blockchain-based applications accessible to more people than ever before. Even people without a technical background can now potentially build blockchain apps. This is a revolutionary leap for blockchain technology that could bring decentralized applications into the mainstream.
Essentially, any cryptocurrency network is based on the absolute consensus of all the participants regarding the legitimacy of balances and transactions. If nodes of the network disagree on a single balance, the system would basically break. However, there are a lot of rules pre-built and programmed into the network that prevents this from happening.
Darknet markets present challenges in regard to legality. Bitcoins and other forms of cryptocurrency used in dark markets are not clearly or legally classified in almost all parts of the world. In the U.S., bitcoins are labelled as "virtual assets". This type of ambiguous classification puts pressure on law enforcement agencies around the world to adapt to the shifting drug trade of dark markets.
In 2016 a decentralized autonomous organization called The DAO, a set of smart contracts developed on the platform, raised a record US$150 million in a crowdsale to fund the project. The DAO was exploited in June when US$50 million in ether were taken by an unknown hacker. The event sparked a debate in the crypto-community about whether Ethereum should perform a contentious "hard fork" to reappropriate the affected funds. As a result of the dispute, the network split in two. Ethereum (the subject of this article) continued on the forked blockchain, while Ethereum Classic continued on the original blockchain. The hard fork created a rivalry between the two networks.
Despite bringing a number of benefits, decentralized applications aren’t faultless. Because smart contract code is written by humans, smart contracts are only as good as the people who write them. Code bugs or oversights can lead to unintended adverse actions being taken. If a mistake in the code gets exploited, there is no efficient way in which an attack or exploitation can be stopped other than obtaining a network consensus and rewriting the underlying code. This goes against the essence of the blockchain which is meant to be immutable. Also, any action taken by a central party raises serious questions about the decentralized nature of an application.
Bitcoin is a digital asset designed to work in peer-to-peer transactions as a currency. Bitcoins have three qualities useful in a currency, according to The Economist in January 2015: they are "hard to earn, limited in supply and easy to verify." Per some researchers, as of 2015, bitcoin functions more as a payment system than as a currency.
Within a cryptocurrency network, only miners can confirm transactions by solving a cryptographic puzzle. They take transactions, mark them as legitimate and spread them across the network. Afterwards, every node of the network adds it to its database. Once the transaction is confirmed it becomes unforgeable and irreversible and a miner receives a reward, plus the transaction fees.
The term altcoin has various similar definitions. Stephanie Yang of The Wall Street Journal defined altcoins as "alternative digital currencies," while Paul Vigna, also of The Wall Street Journal, described altcoins as alternative versions of bitcoin. Aaron Hankins of the MarketWatch refers to any cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin as altcoins.
As with other cryptocurrencies, the validity of each ether is provided by a blockchain, which is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. By design, the blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is an open, distributed ledger that records transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way. Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum operates using accounts and balances in a manner called state transitions. This does not rely upon unspent transaction outputs (UTXOs). State denotes the current balances of all accounts and extra data. State is not stored on the blockchain, it is stored in a separate Merkle Patricia tree. A cryptocurrency wallet stores the public and private "keys" or "addresses" which can be used to receive or spend ether. These can be generated through BIP 39 style mnemonics for a BIP 32 "HD Wallet". In Ethereum, this is unnecessary as it does not operate in a UTXO scheme. With the private key, it is possible to write in the blockchain, effectively making an ether transaction.