Like Bitcoin, Ethereum is a distributed public blockchain network. Although there are some significant technical differences between the two, the most important distinction to note is that Bitcoin and Ethereum differ substantially in purpose and capability. Bitcoin offers one particular application of blockchain technology, a peer to peer electronic cash system that enables online Bitcoin payments. While the Bitcoin blockchain is used to track ownership of digital currency (bitcoins), the Ethereum blockchain focuses on running the programming code of any decentralized application.

To be accepted by the rest of the network, a new block must contain a proof-of-work (PoW).[79] The system used is based on Adam Back's 1997 anti-spam scheme, Hashcash.[90][failed verification][4] The PoW requires miners to find a number called a nonce, such that when the block content is hashed along with the nonce, the result is numerically smaller than the network's difficulty target.[7]:ch. 8 This proof is easy for any node in the network to verify, but extremely time-consuming to generate, as for a secure cryptographic hash, miners must try many different nonce values (usually the sequence of tested values is the ascending natural numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, ...[7]:ch. 8) before meeting the difficulty target.
Since prices are based on supply and demand, the rate at which a cryptocurrency can be exchanged for another currency can fluctuate widely. However, plenty of research has been undertaken to identify the fundamental price drivers of cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin has indeed experienced some rapid surges and collapses in value, reaching as high as $19,000 per bitcoin in December of 2017 before returning to around $7,000 in the following months. Cryptocurrencies are thus considered by some economists to be a short-lived fad or speculative bubble. There is concern especially that the currency units, such as bitcoins, are not rooted in any material goods. Some research has identified that the cost of producing a bitcoin, which takes an increasingly large amount of energy, is directly related to its market price.
While cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that are managed through advanced encryption techniques, many governments have taken a cautious approach toward them, fearing their lack of central control and the effects they could have on financial security.[81] Regulators in several countries have warned against cryptocurrency and some have taken concrete regulatory measures to dissuade users.[82] Additionally, many banks do not offer services for cryptocurrencies and can refuse to offer services to virtual-currency companies.[83] Gareth Murphy, a senior central banking officer has stated "widespread use [of cryptocurrency] would also make it more difficult for statistical agencies to gather data on economic activity, which are used by governments to steer the economy". He cautioned that virtual currencies pose a new challenge to central banks' control over the important functions of monetary and exchange rate policy.[84] While traditional financial products have strong consumer protections in place, there is no intermediary with the power to limit consumer losses if bitcoins are lost or stolen.[85] One of the features cryptocurrency lacks in comparison to credit cards, for example, is consumer protection against fraud, such as chargebacks.
Vitalik Buterin picked the name Ethereum after browsing Wikipedia articles about elements and science fiction, when he found the name, noting, "I immediately realized that I liked it better than all of the other alternatives that I had seen; I suppose it was the fact that sounded nice and it had the word 'ether', referring to the hypothetical invisible medium that permeates the universe and allows light to travel."[9]
According to The New York Times, libertarians and anarchists were attracted to the idea. Early bitcoin supporter Roger Ver said: "At first, almost everyone who got involved did so for philosophical reasons. We saw bitcoin as a great idea, as a way to separate money from the state."[131] The Economist describes bitcoin as "a techno-anarchist project to create an online version of cash, a way for people to transact without the possibility of interference from malicious governments or banks".[134] Economist Paul Krugman argues that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are "something of a cult" based in "paranoid fantasies" of government power.[135]
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.
Venture capitalists, such as Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, which invested US$3 million in BitPay, do not purchase bitcoins themselves, but instead fund bitcoin infrastructure that provides payment systems to merchants, exchanges, wallet services, etc.[162] In 2012, an incubator for bitcoin-focused start-ups was founded by Adam Draper, with financing help from his father, venture capitalist Tim Draper, one of the largest bitcoin holders after winning an auction of 30,000 bitcoins,[163] at the time called "mystery buyer".[164] The company's goal is to fund 100 bitcoin businesses within 2–3 years with $10,000 to $20,000 for a 6% stake.[163] Investors also invest in bitcoin mining.[165] According to a 2015 study by Paolo Tasca, bitcoin startups raised almost $1 billion in three years (Q1 2012 – Q1 2015).[166]
Cryptocurrencies hold the promise of making it easier to transfer funds directly between two parties in a transaction, without the need for a trusted third party such as a bank or credit card company; these transfers are facilitated through the use of public keys and private keys for security purposes. In modern cryptocurrency systems, a user's "wallet," or account address, has the public key, and the private key is used to sign transactions. Fund transfers are done with minimal processing fees, allowing users to avoid the steep fees charged by most banks and financial institutions for wire transfers.
Ethereum is the pioneer for blockchain based smart contracts. When running on the blockchain a smart contract becomes like a self-operating computer program that automatically executes when specific conditions are met. On the blockchain, smart contracts allow for code to be run exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third-party interference. It can facilitate the exchange of money, content, property, shares, or anything of value. The Ethereum network went live on July 30th, 2015 with 72 million Ethereum premined.

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.
The proof-of-stake is a method of securing a cryptocurrency network and achieving distributed consensus through requesting users to show ownership of a certain amount of currency. It is different from proof-of-work systems that run difficult hashing algorithms to validate electronic transactions. The scheme is largely dependent on the coin, and there's currently no standard form of it. Some cryptocurrencies use a combined proof-of-work/proof-of-stake scheme.[16]
In Charles Stross' 2013 science fiction novel, Neptune's Brood, the universal interstellar payment system is known as "bitcoin" and operates using cryptography.[236] Stross later blogged that the reference was intentional, saying "I wrote Neptune's Brood in 2011. Bitcoin was obscure back then, and I figured had just enough name recognition to be a useful term for an interstellar currency: it'd clue people in that it was a networked digital currency."[237]

In March 2013 the blockchain temporarily split into two independent chains with different rules due to a bug in version 0.8 of the bitcoin software. The two blockchains operated simultaneously for six hours, each with its own version of the transaction history from the moment of the split. Normal operation was restored when the majority of the network downgraded to version 0.7 of the bitcoin software, selecting the backward compatible version of the blockchain. As a result, this blockchain became the longest chain and could be accepted by all participants, regardless of their bitcoin software version.[42] During the split, the Mt. Gox exchange briefly halted bitcoin deposits and the price dropped by 23% to $37[42][43] before recovering to previous level of approximately $48 in the following hours.[44] The US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) established regulatory guidelines for "decentralized virtual currencies" such as bitcoin, classifying American bitcoin miners who sell their generated bitcoins as Money Service Businesses (MSBs), that are subject to registration or other legal obligations.[45][46][47] In April, exchanges BitInstant and Mt. Gox experienced processing delays due to insufficient capacity[48] resulting in the bitcoin price dropping from $266 to $76 before returning to $160 within six hours.[49] The bitcoin price rose to $259 on 10 April, but then crashed by 83% to $45 over the next three days.[40] On 15 May 2013, US authorities seized accounts associated with Mt. Gox after discovering it had not registered as a money transmitter with FinCEN in the US.[50][51] On 23 June 2013, the US Drug Enforcement Administration listed ₿11.02 as a seized asset in a United States Department of Justice seizure notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881.[52][better source needed] This marked the first time a government agency had seized bitcoin.[53] The FBI seized about ₿30,000[54] in October 2013 from the dark web website Silk Road during the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht.[55][56][57] These bitcoins were sold at blind auction by the United States Marshals Service to venture capital investor Tim Draper.[54] Bitcoin's price rose to $755 on 19 November and crashed by 50% to $378 the same day. On 30 November 2013 the price reached $1,163 before starting a long-term crash, declining by 87% to $152 in January 2015.[40] On 5 December 2013, the People's Bank of China prohibited Chinese financial institutions from using bitcoins.[58] After the announcement, the value of bitcoins dropped,[59] and Baidu no longer accepted bitcoins for certain services.[60] Buying real-world goods with any virtual currency had been illegal in China since at least 2009.[61]
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