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's blockchain uses Merkle trees, for security reasons, to improve scalability, and to optimize transaction hashing. As with any Merkle tree implementation, it allows for storage savings, set membership proofs (called "Merkle proofs"), and light client synchronization. The Ethereum network has at times faced congestion problems, for example, congestion occurred during late 2017 in relation to Cryptokitties.
One of the most important problems that any payment network has to solve is double-spending. It is a fraudulent technique of spending the same amount twice. The traditional solution was a trusted third party - a central server - that kept records of the balances and transactions. However, this method always entailed an authority basically in control of your funds and with all your personal details on hand.
Cryptocurrencies have been compared to Ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes and economic bubbles, such as housing market bubbles. Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital Management stated in 2017 that digital currencies were "nothing but an unfounded fad (or perhaps even a pyramid scheme), based on a willingness to ascribe value to something that has little or none beyond what people will pay for it", and compared them to the tulip mania (1637), South Sea Bubble (1720), and dot-com bubble (1999). The New Yorker has explained the debate based on interviews with blockchain founders in an article about the “argument over whether Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the blockchain are transforming the world”.
In Ethereum all smart contracts are stored publicly on every node of the blockchain, which has costs. Being a blockchain means it is secure by design and is an example of a distributed computing system with high Byzantine fault tolerance. The downside is that performance issues arise in that every node is calculating all the smart contracts in real time, resulting in lower speeds. As of January 2016, the Ethereum protocol could process about 25 transactions per second. In comparison, the Visa payment platform processes 45,000 payments per second leading some to question the scalability of Ethereum. On 19 December 2016, Ethereum exceeded one million transactions in a single day for the first time.
The overwhelming majority of bitcoin transactions take place on a cryptocurrency exchange, rather than being used in transactions with merchants. Delays processing payments through the blockchain of about ten minutes make bitcoin use very difficult in a retail setting. Prices are not usually quoted in units of bitcoin and many trades involve one, or sometimes two, conversions into conventional currencies. Merchants that do accept bitcoin payments may use payment service providers to perform the conversions.
Bitcoin has been criticized for the amount of electricity consumed by mining. As of 2015, The Economist estimated that even if all miners used modern facilities, the combined electricity consumption would be 166.7 megawatts (1.46 terawatt-hours per year). At the end of 2017, the global bitcoin mining activity was estimated to consume between one and four gigawatts of electricity. According to Politico, even the high-end estimates of bitcoin's total consumption levels amount to only about 6% of the total power consumed by the global banking sector, and even if bitcoin's consumption levels increased 100 fold from today's levels, bitcoin's consumption would still only amount to about 2% of global power consumption.
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.
“In 2 years from now, I believe cryptocurrencies will be gaining legitimacy as a protocol for business transactions, micropayments, and overtaking Western Union as the preferred remittance tool. Regarding business transactions – you’ll see two paths: There will be financial businesses which use it for it’s no fee, nearly-instant ability to move any amount of money around, and there will be those that utilize it for its blockchain technology. Blockchain technology provides the largest benefit with trustless auditing, single source of truth, smart contracts, and color coins.”
While it’s very easy to buy Bitcoins - there are numerous exchanges in existence that trade in BTC - other cryptocurrencies aren’t as easy to acquire. Although, this situation is slowly improving with major exchanges like Kraken, BitFinex, BitStamp and many others starting to sell Litecoin, Ethereum, Monero, Ripple and so on. There are also a few other different ways of being coin, for instance, you can trade face-to-face with a seller or use a Bitcoin ATM.
After much debate, the Ethereum community voted and decided to retrieve the stolen funds by executing what’s known as a hard fork or a change in code. The hard fork moved the stolen funds to a new smart contract designed to let the original owners withdraw their tokens. But this is where things get complicated. The implications of this decision are controversial and the topic of intense debate.
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.
Physical wallets can also take the form of metal token coins with a private key accessible under a security hologram in a recess struck on the reverse side.:38 The security hologram self-destructs when removed from the token, showing that the private key has been accessed. Originally, these tokens were struck in brass and other base metals, but later used precious metals as bitcoin grew in value and popularity.:80 Coins with stored face value as high as ₿1000 have been struck in gold.:102–104 The British Museum's coin collection includes four specimens from the earliest series:83 of funded bitcoin tokens; one is currently on display in the museum's money gallery. In 2013, a Utahn manufacturer of these tokens was ordered by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to register as a money services business before producing any more funded bitcoin tokens.:80
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 has been criticized for its use in illegal transactions, its high electricity consumption, price volatility, and thefts from exchanges. Some noted economists, including several Nobel laureates, have characterized it as a speculative bubble. Bitcoin has also been used as an investment, although several regulatory agencies have issued investor alerts about bitcoin.