You might have been hearing about Bitcoin more frequently in the past few years. Recently it made a lot of news because of the ransomware attacks that affected countries around the world by demanding Bitcoin ransom to release embargoed documents on computers. So what the heck is Bitcoin, and how does it work?
First, let’s get this out of the way: bitcoin is money. It’s money as much as the dollar or euro or yen is money. And it’s fully interconvertible with these or any other currencies. Bitcoin is different than these national currencies in many key ways, however, because Bitcoin is a type of digital money that basically runs itself without any government intervention and minimal regulation.
Bitcoin is both the network for using the currency as well as the currency itself. It’s usually denoted Bitcoin (big B) when talking about the network and bitcoin (small b) when talking about the actual currency. For example, I have about four bitcoin in my online wallet, and I use the Bitcoin network to send payments.
How do you get bitcoin? There are two ways: Either you buy bitcoin, or you mine bitcoin. Buying bitcoin is quite easy. There are many online exchanges that will sell you bitcoin in exchange for whatever currency you normally use (dollars, etc.). I use Coinbase to buy my bitcoin, and it’s the most mainstream and scrutinized of the current exchanges. It was founded by Wall Street types in order to help Bitcoin become more mainstream. There are many others you can use, such as Kraken or CoinMama.
You can also buy bitcoin in person at various bitcoin ATMs around the world. There are now about 1,200 such ATMs in 60 countries around the world, and they’re growing rapidly. Here’s a site that allows you to find the nearest ATM.
Last, you can buy bitcoin through real people by using localbitcoins.com to find people in your area who will sell you bitcoin without going through an online exchange at all.
The second way to get bitcoin is by ”mining” them. You mine bitcoin using fast computers specially built for doing this. These specialized machines crunch numbers to discover the right codes. Every 10 minutes, the Bitcoin network releases a new block of bitcoin and the party or parties who discovered the right codes gets that block of coins (currently 12.5 coins per block). Bitmain is one of the bigger mining machine manufacturers and their newest model, the T9, sells for about one bitcoin.
This number crunching for “mining” is why bitcoin is referred to as a “crypto currency”: it’s all about using very large numbers that take massive computing power to preserve the integrity of the system and avoid hacking. The Bitcoin system basically turns electricity into money.
So far, Bitcoin has never been hacked. There’s a common misconception that it has. Many companies that buy and sell bitcoin — bitcoin exchanges — have been hacked. Most famously, MtGox, one of the earliest exchanges, was hacked in 2013 and people lost a lot of money. But even then the Bitcoin network wasn’t hacked. Only the exchange was hacked.
That said, security is very important for those buying and selling bitcoin because the code itself is the currency. It’s a string of numbers and letters called a “hash key.” If someone has your hash keys, they have your bitcoin. There’s nothing extra beyond the hash key.
Your bitcoin are kept generally in an online wallet at an exchange like Coinbase or Xapo. Here’s a site that compares the security of the various means for storing bitcoin. Coinbase wins that comparison currently for online wallets and the Ledger Nano wins for hardware wallets.
You can also keep your bitcoin in an online “vault,” which adds extra layers of security for bitcoin that you don’t plan to use for a while. For example, it takes a couple of days to withdraw bitcoin from the Coinbase vault, and various types of authentication are required before the transaction is complete.
For those who want to take matters more into their own hands and avoid having to trust an online wallet or vault, you can keep your bitcoin in a physical hard drive, or you can even just write your codes by hand on paper and keep them in your physical wallet in your pocket.
Personally, I use a variety of online wallets and vaults in order to prevent any single mishap or hack from hitting me too hard. I can’t be bothered with keeping the codes offline but maybe I will one day as an extra layer of security.
How much is Bitcoin worth?
The price of one bitcoin has grown from nothing in 2009 when the Bitcoin network was created to more than $1,800 in May. If you had invested $1,000 in bitcoin in 2010, you would be sitting on more than $12 million now. How has it gone up so much? Well, because increasing numbers of investors have decided to place their confidence in the system.
We can look at the stats to get a good feel for how fast Bitcoin has grown. Blockchain.info keeps detailed stats.
» The number of bitcoin in circulation has grown from zero in the beginning of 2009 to almost 16.5 million now, with only about 4.5 million more to mine (but this will take about a century to complete because mining becomes intentionally more and more difficult).
» The Bitcoin price grew from nothing to almost $1,200 at the end of 2013, plummeted to around $200 in 2014, and rose again to more than $1,800 in May.
» Bitcoin’s market capitalization has gyrated similarly, but is now about $30 billion, up from zero in 2009 and $12 billion at the end of 2016, and is enjoying a strong upward trend in 2017.
» All crypto currencies combined now have a market cap over $60 billion, including Ripple, Ethereum, Litcoin and many others, many of which are also on very strong upward trajectories.
» The number of Bitcoin wallet users (required to buy and conduct business using bitcoin) has grown from zero in 2009 to more than 7 million by mid-2016 and 14 million now.
» Bitcoin daily transactions have grown from nothing in 2009 to 210,000 in mid-2016 and more than 350,000 by May.
So we’re seeing the Bitcoin system roughly doubling in size each year, and there’s little reason to believe that this rate of growth will slow down at this point. If anything, it’s likely to increase.
What does “deflationary” currency mean?
Bitcoin is different than regular money in that there’s a limit to how many can be created: just 21 million. Ever. The idea behind this limit is that the value of this currency can’t be inflated away by policymakers. The dollar loses about 2 percent in value each year because of planned inflation, and this provides a strong incentive to invest rather than save — and that’s literally why the Federal Reserve has a target inflation rate of 2 to 3 percent.
Bitcoin is the opposite: It’s designed to always increase in value, so simply buying and holding may be a very good investment strategy. This is why Bitcoin is described as a “deflationary” currency rather than an inflationary currency.
There’s also a limit on how small each Bitcoin can be divided: into 100 million parts. This tiny part of a bitcoin is called a satoshi, in honor of its mysterious and anonymous creator Satoshi Nakamoto.
What is the blockchain?
The magic ingredient in Bitcoin is the distribution of trust in a vast electronic network. This distribution moots the need for the “centralization of trust” that is the function of central banks like the Federal Reserve. Central banks issue money, control interest rates and act as a lender of last resort in “fiat currency” systems like in the United States. The distribution of trust to the network performs these roles in the Bitcoin ecosystem. This trust network is called the “blockchain,” and it is the heart of Bitcoin.
The blockchain is an electronic record (ledger) of all bitcoin transactions that is stored on every node of the ever-increasing network of the Bitcoin ecosystem. Because it is completely distributed and constantly updated in real time, using very difficult cryptographic keys that require massive amounts of computing power, the blockchain can’t be shut down by any outside force. This fully decentralized system renders Bitcoin as a system practically immune from hackers. As mentioned above, individual bitcoin exchanges can and have been hacked, but Bitcoin itself has never been hacked.
The beauty of the blockchain and Bitcoin ecosystem is that it allows any person or people using it to avoid the centralized (and often abusive) power of central banks and of national governments entirely. ABN Amro bank chief said it well in 2015: “What the Internet has done for information and the way we communicate, the blockchain will do for value and the way we look at trust. The financial world is going to flip upside-down.”
We are witnessing that upside-down flip right now in real time. This is why we’ve seen literally $30 billion in new money come into the Bitcoin and other crypto currency space in the past six months alone.
Obviously, the decentralized nature and independence from government influence has appealed to libertarians and techno-optimists since Bitcoin’s creation. Bitcoin long has had a bad rep because it’s been used by various versions of the Silk Road website to buy and sell drugs and other illegal items. But there’s far more to Bitcoin than illegal drugs.
Bitcoin is now accepted by thousands of companies and vendors around the world. Japan recently recognized Bitcoin as a legitimate currency, and this means that more than 260,000 stores in Japan soon will start accepting Bitcoin.
We are very likely seeing the beginning of a very large wave of growth for Bitcoin and other crypto currencies like Ethereum.
Investing in Bitcoin
How should you invest in Bitcoin? I’ve always advised people that you shouldn’t invest anything in Bitcoin that you don’t mind losing. That’s generally still good advice because this currency and the technology behind it are still very new. They could just disappear for a variety of reasons.
But the highly positive trends in terms of wallet growth, acceptance by businesses and governments, as well as market cap and price, discussed above have led me recently to change my mind a little and suggest that Bitcoin should in fact be a part of any smart investor’s portfolio.
It shouldn’t be a large part, but it should definitely be a part of it. With returns like we’ve seen on Bitcoin in the past eight years, it’s reasonable to accept some risk.
Will Bitcoin change the world?
The last thing I’ll look at is the revolutionary potential for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in terms of how they may change the world. I wrote a piece in 2015 looking at how Bitcoin may stop China from replacing the United States on the world stage. This would be a good thing and could happen if enough Chinese simply start to prefer using bitcoin instead of yuan to conduct business. If China can’t control its currency it can’t control the world.
I also looked in a piece last year at whether Bitcoin is likely to be the future of money more generally. I concluded then and still believe that Bitcoin (or maybe some other coin built on the blockchain) will probably either grow in the next couple of decades to become a global currency or shrink down such that it becomes just an interesting historical footnote.
What happens if Bitcoin or something like it does replace national fiat currencies around the world? First, it makes it much harder for nations to raise massive amounts of money through printing or borrowing. This means that deficit spending will shrink or even go away. And, according to at least some Bitcoin libertarian optimists, this would also stop nations from waging war as much because they’d have to finance such wars as they go, with real money, rather than using deficit spending. A more peaceful world would indeed be a nice consequence of the Bitcoin revolution.
In closing, Bitcoin is a potentially transformative new type of currency that promises to create a more borderless and peaceful world, and an increasing flow of information and goods. It also may well lead to many unpredictable effects that we’ll simply have to sit back and watch as they unfold.