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Bitcoin is a digital and global money system currency. It allows people to send or receive money across the internet, even to someone they don't know or don't trust. Money can be exchanged without being linked to a real identity. The mathematical field of cryptography is the basis for Bitcoin's security.
Bitcoin was invented by someone using the name Satoshi Nakamoto. A Bitcoin address, or simply address, is an identifier of 26-35 letters and numbers, beginning with the number 1 or 3, that represents a possible destination for a bitcoin payment. Addresses can be generated at no cost by any user of Bitcoin. For example, using Bitcoin Core, one can click "New Address" and be assigned an address. It is also possible to get a Bitcoin address using an account at an exchange or online wallet service.
There are currently two address formats in common use.
One of the differences between using bitcoin and using regular money online is that bitcoin can be used without having an internet connection to link any sort of real-world identity to it. Unless someone chooses to link their name to a bitcoin address, it is hard to tell who owns the address. Bitcoin does not keep track of users; it keeps track of addresses where the money is. Each address has two important pieces of cryptographic information, or keys: a public one and a private one. The public key, which is what the "bitcoin address" is created from, is similar to an email address; anyone can look it up and send bitcoins to it. The private address, or private key, is similar to an email password; only with it can the owner send bitcoins from it. Because of this, it is very important that this private key is kept secret. To send bitcoins from an address, you prove to the network that you own the private key that belongs to the address, without revealing the private key. This is done with a branch of mathematics known as public-key cryptography.
A public key is what determines the ownership of bitcoins, and is very similar to an ID number. If someone wanted to send you bitcoins, all you would need to do is supply them your bitcoin address, which is a version of your public key that is easier to read and type. For example, if Bob has 1 bitcoin at the bitcoin address "ABC123," and Alice has no bitcoins at the bitcoin address "DEF456," Bob can send 0.5 bitcoins to "DEF456." As soon as the transaction is processed, Alice and Bob both have 0.5 bitcoins. Anyone using the system can see how much money "ABC123" has and how much money "DEF456" has, but they cannot tell anything about who owns the address.
In the example above, "ABC123" and "DEF456" are the bitcoin addresses of Bob and Alice. But Bob and Alice each have a second key which only they individually know. This is the private key, and it is the "other half" of a Bitcoin address. The private key is never shared, and allows the owner of the bitcoins to control them. However, if the private key is not kept secret, then anyone who sees it can also control and take the bitcoins there. This happened on live TV when Bloomberg's Matt Miller accidentally showed a private key to viewers. The money was taken immediately. The person who took it, told others about it later, saying "I'll send it back once Matt gives me a new address, since someone else can sweep [empty] out the old one."
Sites or users using the Bitcoin system are required to use a global database called the blockchain. The blockchain is a record of all transactions that have taken place in the Bitcoin network. It also keeps track of new bitcoins as they are generated. With these two facts, the blockchain can keep track of who has how much money at all times.
To generate a bitcoin, a miner must solve a math problem. However, the difficulty of the math problem depends on how many people are mining for bitcoin at the moment. Because of how complicated the math problems usually are, they must be calculated with very powerful processors.
These processors can be found in CPUs, graphics cards, or specialized machines called ASICs. The process of generating the bitcoins is called mining. People who use these machines to mine bitcoins are called miners. Miners either compete with one another or work together in groups to solve a mathematical puzzle. The first miner or group of miners to solve the particular puzzle are rewarded with new bitcoins.
The puzzle is determined by the transactions being sent at the time and the previous puzzle solution. This means the solution to one puzzle is always different from the puzzles before. Attempting to change an earlier transaction, maybe to fake bitcoins being sent or change the number of someone's bitcoins, requires solving that puzzle again, which takes a lot of work, and also requires solving each of the following puzzles, which takes even more work. This means a bitcoin cheater needs to outpace all the other bitcoin miners to change the bitcoin history. This makes the bitcoin blockchain very safe to use.
A paper printable bitcoin wallet consisting of one bitcoin address for receiving and the corresponding private key for spending.
A popular image associated with Bitcoin is a QR code. QR codes are a group of black and white boxes that are similar to barcodes. Barcodes are a row of lines, and QR codes are a grid of squares. Bitcoin uses QR codes because they can store more information in a small space, and a camera such as a smartphone can read them. The two QR codes on the Bitcoin note are the public and private addresses, and can be scanned with a number of online tools.
An actual bitcoin transaction from a web based cryptocurrency exchange to a hardware wallet.
Everyone in the Bitcoin network is considered a peer, and all addresses are created equal. All transactions can take place solely from peer to peer, but a number of sites exist to make these transactions simpler. These sites are called exchanges. Exchanges provide tools for dealing in Bitcoin. Some allow the purchase of Bitcoin from external accounts, and others allow trading with other cryptography-based currencies like Bitcoin. Most exchanges also provide a basic "wallet" service.
Wallets provide a handy way to keep track of all of a user's public and private addresses. Because addresses are pseudo-anonymous, anyone can have as many addresses as they want.
This is useful for dealing with multiple people, but it can get complicated to manage multiple accounts. A wallet holds all of this information in a convenient place, just like a real wallet would. A backup of a wallet prevents 'losing' the bitcoins.
Bitcoin adoption and use continues to grow a lot every year. Since 2012, Bitcoin has gained the attention of the mainstream media; one way is the WannaCry ransomware created in May 2017. Adoption growth has not only happened for consumers, but also for many companies, who are looking to make use of all of the advantages of Bitcoin. Among Millennials, cryptocurrencies were a popular choice to invest $10,000 in, in a March 2018.
Survey of 1,000 Americans.Specifically, the survey found that 9.19% of Millennials (18-34) would invest the $10,000 in cryptocurrencies, compared to 4.04% of Generation Xers (35-54) and 3.08% of Baby Boomers (55+).What’s more interesting is that Bitcoin remains by far the most popular choice, followed by Ethereum and Litecoin. Specifically, 76% of the Millennials in the survey said that they would invest the $10,000 in Bitcoin, 12% in Ethereum and 12% in Litecoin.  Although the real time price and trading in bitcoin varies with market demand.
Altcoins are cryptocurrencies other than Bitcoin. The majority of altcoins are forks of Bitcoin with small uninteresting changes. This page categorises different ways altcoins have modified Bitcoin.
Different proof-of-work algorithm
The PoW algorithm used for mining Bitcoin is SHA2. It was chosen because it is fast to verify and has been critically analyzed. SHA2 has had ASICs developed for it meaning there is a much smaller risk of centralization.
The following mining algorithms are being used in different altcoins:
Scrypt proof of work
Combination of hashing algorithms in series (e.g. X11)
Combination of hashing algorithms in parallel (e.g. Myriad algorithm)
The problem with having an algorithm that is "easy to mine with" (referring to the ability to CPU or GPU mine profitably) is that mining should be hard in order to secure the network. When a mining algorithm is difficult to make ASICs for, there is a higher barrier to entry. A high barrier to entry increases the time that the first group to create ASICs will monopolize the market (and the time the network is vulnerable to a 51% attack from a single source). Many argue that the creators or the developers could simply change the mining algorithm when an ASIC is developed, but this defeats the purpose of decentralized consensus by causing centralization.
If these cryptocurrencies do have a healthy number of companies producing ASICs and have avoided centralization, they still are using algorithms that take longer to verify than SHA2. Therefore, at best a cryptocurrencies with merely a hashing algorithm change are as good as an exact clone of Bitcoin and not better (however since Bitcoin already exists, an exact clone of Bitcoin has no innovation or value). If the hashing algorithm is slower, as most altcoin algorithms are, it is a disadvantage because it takes more processing time to validate a block and increases the number of organic re-orgs (makes it easier to double spend).
Proof Of Stake
In Proof of Stake, instead of sacrificing energy to mine a block, a user must prove they own a certain amount of the cryptocurrency to generate a block. The more stake you own, the more likely you are to generate a block. In theory, this should prevent users from creating forks because it will devalue their stake and it should save a lot of energy.
Proof of Stake sounds like a good idea, but ironically, there is the "Nothing at Stake" problem. Because mining Bitcoin is costly, it is not smart to waste your energy on a fork that won't earn you any money, however with Proof of Stake, it is free to mine a fork.
An example of a nothing at stake attack is an attacker buying lots of "old stake" from users inexpensively (inexpensive to users who no longer have stake in the currency). This can be made convenient by offering small payments to users for uploading their wallet.dat. Eventually after accumulating enough "old stake", the user can begin creating blocks and destroying as many or more coin days than the network was at that time. This block generation can be repeated until it catches up to and beats the current main-chain very cheaply.
There are also "stake grinding" attacks which require a trivial amount of currency. In a stake grinding attack, the attacker has a small amount of stake and goes through the history of the blockchain and finds places where their stake wins a block. In order to consecutively win, they modify the next block header until some stake they own wins once again. This attack requires a bit of computation, but definately isn't impractical.
Because these attacks exists, including Peercoin and Blackcoin proof of stake cryptocurrencies have "master" public keys that control the blockchain.
This class of cryptocurrency is either insecure or centralized, however proof of stake (based on a PoW currency) is useful in some systems because gaining stake is costly, but it isn't workable for bootstrapping distributed consensus.
Application Built on Top of a Cryptocurrency
Bitcoin is a lot like HTTP. It is an application layer protocol and tools can be built on it (like websites can be built on HTTP). There is a class of cryptocurrencies that promise features like casino websites and exchanges and anonymity protocols to be built on top of them.
When creating a new website, one doesn't make a new protocol unless it is necessary. For example, HTTPS is an encrypted version of HTTP, therefore it is useful and necessary. When creating an app such as "DarkSend", one doesn't need to make a new protocol such as "Darkcoin". This is synonymous to making an HTTPS alternative (eg. HTTPSX) for your new encrypted chat website and not adding any new security or functionality to HTTPSX.
Because Darkcoin is by far the most popular cryptocurrency of this class, the Darkcoin example will be covered in this section.
The Darkcoin devs created a tool called DarkSend. DarkSend is an implementation of coinjoin (an anonymity feature originally implemented in Bitcoin) which utilizes the Darkcoin network to organize the coinjoins. If DarkSend becomes open source and is useful, it will be ported to Bitcoin with a few small modifications. These changes won't be a hardfork, they will likely involve the masternodes being paid by those they are coinjoining for rather than the block reward, which is already possible and implemented for Bitcoin. Currently one must hold 1000DRK to become a DarkSend masternodes. Masternodes are paid 10% of the block reward. This is a flawed reward scheme because while purchasing 1000DRK is trustlessly verifiable, a user running a DarkSend masternode isn't trustlessly verifiable. It is also costs bandwidth to run a masternode, therefore there is an incentive to buy 1000DRK and get a chance at the 10% block reward masternodes are being paid, but not actually act as a masternode. For this reason, DarkSend would work better if the masternodes were paid by those they were helping coinjoin, or if there wasn't a masternode at all and everyone collaborated in a decentralized fashion. The better implementation not vulnerable to tragedy of the commons is compatible with Bitcoin, therefore, the Darksend protocol serves no purpose.
Demographic Based Premined Cryptocurrencies
This is a new class of altcoin that is targeted at a certain demographic.
All of these cryptocurrencies have a large premine intended to be paid to members of that demographic. Ultimately, all of these coins have suffered (or are suffering) their fate of an immediate sell off after the "airdrop" (term for distribution of coins to the target demographic) begins.
Note: These cryptocurrencies aren't government initiatives, but are independently created for that demographic.
A cryptocurrency is useful if it accomplishes a task that Bitcoin cannot.
Acting as a keystore for things like decentralized domain registration.
Having demmurage or some other economic system that is one of the prohibited changes.
Allowing creation of and transmission of digital assets.