A wallet stores the information necessary to transact bitcoins. While wallets are often described as a place to hold or store bitcoins, due to the nature of the system, bitcoins are inseparable from the blockchain transaction ledger. A wallet is more correctly defined as something that "stores the digital credentials for your bitcoin holdings" and allows one to access (and spend) them.:ch. 1, glossary Bitcoin uses public-key cryptography, in which two cryptographic keys, one public and one private, are generated. At its most basic, a wallet is a collection of these keys.
The first cryptocurrency to capture the public imagination was Bitcoin, which was launched in 2009 by an individual or group known under the pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto. As of February 2019, there were over 17.53 million bitcoins in circulation with a total market value of around $63 billion (although the market price of bitcoin can fluctuate quite a bit). Bitcoin's success has spawned a number of competing cryptocurrencies, known as "altcoins" such as Litecoin, Namecoin and Peercoin, as well as Ethereum, EOS, and Cardano. Today, there are literally thousands of cryptocurrencies in existence, with an aggregate market value of over $120 billion (Bitcoin currently represents more than 50% of the total value).
Ethereum was initially described in a white paper by Vitalik Buterin, a programmer involved with Bitcoin Magazine, in late 2013 with a goal of building decentralized applications. Buterin had argued that Bitcoin needed a scripting language for application development. Failing to gain agreement, he proposed development of a new platform with a more general scripting language.:88
This flexibility makes Ethereum the perfect instrument for blockchain -application. But it comes at a cost. After the Hack of the DAO – an Ethereum based smart contract – the developers decided to do a hard fork without consensus, which resulted in the emerge of Ethereum Classic. Besides this, there are several clones of Ethereum, and Ethereum itself is a host of several Tokens like DigixDAO and Augur. This makes Ethereum more a family of cryptocurrencies than a single currency.
The bitcoin blockchain is a public ledger that records bitcoin transactions. It is implemented as a chain of blocks, each block containing a hash of the previous block up to the genesis block[d] of the chain. A network of communicating nodes running bitcoin software maintains the blockchain.:215–219 Transactions of the form payer X sends Y bitcoins to payee Z are broadcast to this network using readily available software applications.
Ethereum is also being used as a platform to launch other cryptocurrencies. Because of the ERC20 token standard defined by the Ethereum Foundation, other developers can issue their own versions of this token and raise funds with an initial coin offering (ICO). In this fundraising strategy, the issuers of the token set an amount they want to raise, offer it in a crowdsale, and receive Ether in exchange. Billions of dollars have been raised by ICOs on the Ethereum platform in the last two years, and one of the most valuable cryptocurrencies in the world, EOS, is an ERC20 token.
Cryptocurrencies' blockchains are secure, but other aspects of a cryptocurrency ecosystem are not immune to the threat of hacking. In Bitcoin's 10-year history, several online exchanges have been the subject of hacking and theft, sometimes with millions of dollars worth of 'coins' stolen. Still, many observers look at cryptocurrencies as hope that a currency can exist that preserves value, facilitates exchange, is more transportable than hard metals, and is outside the influence of central banks and governments.