What is Bitcoin
Bitcoin often described as a cryptocurrency, a virtual currency or a digital currency – is a type of money that is completely virtual.
It’s like an online version of cash. You can use it to buy products and services, but not many shops accept Bitcoin yet and some countries have banned it altogether.
The physical Bitcoins you see in photos are a novelty. They would be worthless without the private codes printed inside them.
To cut through some of the confusion surrounding bitcoin, we need to separate it into two components. On the one hand, you have bitcoin-the-token, a snippet of code that represents ownership of a digital concept – sort of like a virtual IOU. On the other hand, you have bitcoin-the-protocol, a distributed network that maintains a ledger of balances of bitcoin-the-token. Both are referred to as “bitcoin.”
The system enables payments to be sent between users without passing through a central authority, such as a bank or payment gateway. It is created and held electronically. Bitcoins aren’t printed, like dollars or euros – they’re produced by computers all around the world, using free software.
It was the first example of what we today call cryptocurrencies, a growing asset class that shares some characteristics of traditional currencies, with verification based on cryptography.
Who created it?
A pseudonymous software developer going by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto proposed bitcoin in 2008, as an electronic payment system based on mathematical proof. The idea was to produce a means of exchange, independent of any central authority, that could be transferred electronically in a secure, verifiable and immutable way.
To this day, no-one knows who Satoshi Nakamoto really is.
In what ways is it different from traditional currencies?
Bitcoin can be used to pay for things electronically if both parties are willing. In that sense, it’s like conventional dollars, euros, or yen, which are also traded digitally.
But it differs from fiat digital currencies in several important ways:
1 – Decentralization
Bitcoin’s most important characteristic is that it is decentralized. No single institution controls the bitcoin network. It is maintained by a group of volunteer coders and run by an open network of dedicated computers spread around the world. This attracts individuals and groups that are uncomfortable with the control that banks or government institutions have over their money.
Bitcoin solves the “double spending problem” of electronic currencies (in which digital assets can easily be copied and re-used) through an ingenious combination of cryptography and economic incentives. In electronic fiat currencies, this function is fulfilled by banks, which gives them control over the traditional system. With bitcoin, the integrity of the transactions is maintained by a distributed and open network, owned by no-one.
2 – Limited supply
Fiat currencies (dollars, euros, yen, etc.) have an unlimited supply – central banks can issue as many as they want, and can attempt to manipulate a currency’s value relative to others. Holders of the currency (and especially citizens with a little alternative) bear the cost.
With bitcoin, on the other hand, the supply is tightly controlled by the underlying algorithm. A small number of new bitcoins trickle out every hour, and will continue to do so at a diminishing rate until a maximum of 21 million has been reached. This makes bitcoin more attractive as an asset – in theory, if demand grows and the supply remains the same, the value will increase.
3 – Pseudonymity
While senders of traditional electronic payments are usually identified (for verification purposes, and to comply with anti-money laundering and other legislation), users of bitcoin, in theory, operate in semi-anonymity. Since there is no central “validator,” users do not need to identify themselves when sending bitcoin to another user. When a transaction request is submitted, the protocol checks all previous transactions to confirm that the sender has the necessary bitcoin as well as the authority to send them. The system does not need to know his or her identity.
In practice, each user is identified by the address of his or her wallet. Transactions can, with some effort, be tracked this way. Also, law enforcement has developed methods to identify users if necessary.
Furthermore, most exchanges are required by law to perform identity checks on their customers before they are allowed to buy or sell bitcoin, facilitating another way that bitcoin usage can be tracked. Since the network is transparent, the progress of a particular transaction is visible to all.
This makes bitcoin not an ideal currency for criminals, terrorists or money-launderers.
4 – Immutability
Bitcoin transactions cannot be reversed, unlike electronic fiat transactions.
This is because there is no central “adjudicator” that can say “ok, return the money.” If a transaction is recorded on the network, and if more than an hour has passed, it is impossible to modify.
While this may disquiet some, it does mean that any transaction on the bitcoin network cannot be tampered with.
5 – Divisibility
The smallest unit of a bitcoin is called a satoshi. It is one hundred millionth of a bitcoin (0.00000001) – at today’s prices, about one hundredth of a cent. This could conceivably enable microtransactions that traditional electronic money cannot.
How does Bitcoin work?
Each Bitcoin is basically a computer file which is stored in a ‘digital wallet’ app on a smartphone or computer.
People can send Bitcoins (or part of one) to your digital wallet, and you can send Bitcoins to other people.
Every single transaction is recorded in a public list called the blockchain.
This makes it possible to trace the history of Bitcoins to stop people from spending coins they do not own, making copies or undo-ing transactions.
How do people get Bitcoins?
There are three main ways people get Bitcoins.
- You can buy Bitcoins using ‘real’ money.
- You can sell things and let people pay you with Bitcoins.
- Or they can be created using a computer.
How are new Bitcoins created?
In order for the Bitcoin system to work, people can make their computer process transactions for everybody.
The computers are made to work out incredibly difficult sums. Occasionally they are rewarded with a Bitcoin for the owner to keep.
People set up powerful computers just to try and get Bitcoins. This is called mining.
But the sums are becoming more and more difficult to stop too many Bitcoins being generated.
If you started mining now it could be years before you got a single Bitcoin.
You could end up spending more money on electricity for your computer than the Bitcoin would be worth.
Why are Bitcoins valuable?
There are lots of things other than money which we consider valuable like gold and diamonds. The Aztecs used cocoa beans as money!
Bitcoins are valuable because people are willing to exchange them for real goods and services, and even cash.
Why do people want Bitcoins?
Some people like the fact that Bitcoin is not controlled by the government or banks.
People can also spend their Bitcoins fairly anonymously. Although all transactions are recorded, nobody would know which ‘account number’ was yours unless you told them.
Is it secure?
The very transaction is recorded publicly so it’s very difficult to copy Bitcoins, make fake ones or spend ones you don’t own.
It is possible to lose your Bitcoin wallet or delete your Bitcoins and lose them forever. There have also been thefts from websites that let you store your Bitcoins remotely.
The value of Bitcoins has gone up and down over the years since it was created in 2009 and people don’t think it’s safe to turn your ‘real’ money into Bitcoins.
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