Vitalik Buterin is the brains behind what some say is the next generation of bitcoin, called Ethereum. (MATTHEW SHERWOOD FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Bitcoin is the mother of all cryptocurrencies, and the most famous of them. Created by a person or people using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, it defined the algorithms that enable the transfer of assets from one party to another without an intermediary, such as a bank.
This helped to kickstart what we call the blockchain revolution. Yet despite its staggering growth – up 500 per cent in the past five years alone – bitcoin is likely to be eclipsed by an upstart called Ethereum that was developed by a twentysomething Torontonian.
Ethereum’s cryptocurrency has a name – ether – that most people have never heard of, outside of a chemistry lab. The total market value of all ether in circulation is $25-billion, not too far below bitcoin’s $42-billion. Ethereum now has “the flippening” in sight, that moment in time when its value surpasses bitcoin’s, something unthinkable only a few months ago.
Is ether simply riding the bitcoin wave of popularity as speculators flood the market for cryptocurrencies? After all, bitcoin’s value has soared from $963 at the beginning of the year to $2,550 today, blowing past my own 2017 price prediction of $2,000.
Perhaps the culprit is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who some believe is buying up ether for himself or even building a digital ruble on top of Ethereum. These rumours started after Mr. Putin met with Ethereum’s founder, Russian-Canadian Vitalik Buterin, at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg last month. Though the meeting may have piqued Mr. Putin’s interest – and the opportunities for blockchain and central banking are indeed profound – the headlines in Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, and others about his master plan are probably overstated.
Something more fundamental is going on here.
Ether’s value will surpass bitcoin’s in 2017, not because of speculative mania or Russian intrigue, but because the Ethereum platform has quickly taken the lead as the de facto technology of this new public internet of value.
True, bitcoin will always be the breakthrough idea that launched a thousand ventures and sparked the imaginations of tech entrepreneurs everywhere. And there are other exciting blockchain projects under way, such as Hyperledger, an initiative of the Linux Foundation supported by over 200 companies, or Cosmos, which is being billed as the Internet of blockchains – a way to unite them all. But at this point, it is Ethereum that is leading the charge in bringing about potentially radical transformations of business and society of the blockchain revolution.
We should say that we don’t see Ethereum and bitcoin as direct competitors here. They serve distinct needs: Bitcoin is a workhorse of a cryptocurrency, excellent for secure peer-to-peer financial transactions but tricky to build whole businesses on.
Ethereum was designed from the outset to enable the creation of software applications that are decentralized – running on computers all over the world simultaneously. This could lead to the building of a new generation of decentralized businesses, networks and organizations, which some people believe could eventually challenge the status quo in everything from finance to government, media and manufacturing.
Today, there are projects underway using Ethereum with rather ambitious goals, such as replacing stock markets with peer-to-peer applications or bypassing Uber and Airbnb with software so the owners of vehicles and apartments can create a real sharing economy.
Consider Ethereum’s first killer app: ICOs, or so-called initial coin offerings. These are basically crowdfunding sales; investors purchase bits of blockchain software called “tokens.” These tokens can represent anything from an interest in a company’s products to a share of future profit.
In 2017, blockchain entrepreneurs have already raised $750-million through these ICOs. About two-thirds of them used Ethereum’s ERC20 token standard, and now the projects and organizations existing on top of Ethereum are worth billions.
Big business is contributing to Ethereum’s success, too. The non-profit Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, a consortium of companies collaborating to develop industry standards, extends the Ethereum network further. It counts more than 150 Fortune 500 companies, including Microsoft, JPMorgan and Toyota.
Most important, Ethereum has galvanized a massive grassroots community of thousands of developers globally.
It would be tempting to write all this off as irrational exuberance. However, there are more than 875 cryptocurrencies and assets listed on Coinmarketcap.com at an estimated total value of just shy of $100-billion (U.S.).
Technologies such as Ethereum face questions about scaling, governance and, given the recent rise of ICOs, if and how they will be regulated. To be sure, these are big questions, but they are not reasons Ethereum will fail. They are simply implementation challenges that need to be overcome – and already many of them are being addressed.
At this rate, Ethereum will soon pass bitcoin in its value and likely in its impact on our world. Is your business ready?