Because of bitcoin's decentralized nature and its trading on online exchanges located in many countries, regulation of bitcoin has been difficult. However, the use of bitcoin can be criminalized, and shutting down exchanges and the peer-to-peer economy in a given country would constitute a de facto ban.[176] The legal status of bitcoin varies substantially from country to country and is still undefined or changing in many of them. Regulations and bans that apply to bitcoin probably extend to similar cryptocurrency systems.[177]
Bitcoin is a digital asset designed to work in peer-to-peer transactions as a currency.[4][141] 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."[142] Per some researchers, as of 2015, bitcoin functions more as a payment system than as a currency.[36]
Then, in early 2009, an anonymous programmer or a group of programmers under an alias Satoshi Nakamoto introduced Bitcoin. Satoshi described it as a ‘peer-to-peer electronic cash system.’ It is completely decentralized, meaning there are no servers involved and no central controlling authority. The concept closely resembles peer-to-peer networks for file sharing.
Bloomberg reported that the largest 17 crypto merchant-processing services handled $69 million in June 2018, down from $411 million in September 2017. Bitcoin is "not actually usable" for retail transactions because of high costs and the inability to process chargebacks, according to Nicholas Weaver, a researcher quoted by Bloomberg. High price volatility and transaction fees make paying for small retail purchases with bitcoin impractical, according to economist Kim Grauer. However, bitcoin continues to be used for large-item purchases on sites such as, and for cross-border payments to freelancers and other vendors.[149]
Another type of physical wallet called a hardware wallet keeps credentials offline while facilitating transactions.[111] The hardware wallet acts as a computer peripheral and signs transactions as requested by the user, who must press a button on the wallet to confirm that they intended to make the transaction. Hardware wallets never expose their private keys, keeping bitcoins in cold storage even when used with computers that may be compromised by malware.[104]:42–45
The term altcoin has various similar definitions. Stephanie Yang of The Wall Street Journal defined altcoins as "alternative digital currencies,"[20] while Paul Vigna, also of The Wall Street Journal, described altcoins as alternative versions of bitcoin.[21] Aaron Hankins of the MarketWatch refers to any cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin as altcoins.[22]
The price of bitcoins has gone through cycles of appreciation and depreciation referred to by some as bubbles and busts.[167] In 2011, the value of one bitcoin rapidly rose from about US$0.30 to US$32 before returning to US$2.[168] In the latter half of 2012 and during the 2012–13 Cypriot financial crisis, the bitcoin price began to rise,[169] reaching a high of US$266 on 10 April 2013, before crashing to around US$50. On 29 November 2013, the cost of one bitcoin rose to a peak of US$1,242.[170] In 2014, the price fell sharply, and as of April remained depressed at little more than half 2013 prices. As of August 2014 it was under US$600.[171] During their time as bitcoin developers, Gavin Andresen[172] and Mike Hearn[173] warned that bubbles may occur.
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Using Ethereum’s “Turing complete” smart contract language, Solidity, developers are able to deploy a set of instructions to the blockchain that operate indefinitely with a high degree of finality and fraud-resistance. With the first block being mined in July 2015, Ethereum has since become the largest smart contract platform of its kind, and the second largest blockchain of all time as measured by market capitalization.
Ethereum has recently created a new standard called the ERC721 token for tracking unique digital assets. One of the biggest use cases currently for such tokens is digital collectibles, as the infrastructure allows for people to prove ownership of scarce digital goods. Many games are currently being built using this technology, such as the overnight hit CryptoKitties, a game where you can collect and breed digital cats.
Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented in 2008 by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto[15] and started in 2009[16] when its source code was released as open-source software.[7]:ch. 1 Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services.[17] Research produced by University of Cambridge estimates that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin.[18]