Bitcoin is a collection of concepts and technologies that form the basis of a digital money ecosystem. Units of currency called bitcoins are used to store and transmit value among participants in the bitcoin network. Bitcoin users communicate with each other using the bitcoin protocol primarily via the Internet, although other transport networks can also be used. The bitcoin protocol stack, available as open source software, can be run on a wide range of computing devices, including laptops and smartphones, making the technology easily accessible. Users can transfer bitcoins over the network to do just about anything that can be done with conventional currencies, including buy and sell goods, send money to people or organizations, or extend credit. Bitcoins can be purchased, sold, and exchanged for other currencies at specialized currency exchanges.
Bitcoin in a sense is the perfect form of money for the Internet because it is fast, secure, and borderless. Unlike traditional currencies, bitcoins are entirely virtual. There are no physical coins or even digital coins per se. The coins are implied in transactions that transfer value from sender to recipient. Users of bitcoin own keys that allow them to prove ownership of transactions in the bitcoin network, unlocking the value to spend it and transfer it to a new recipient. Those keys are often stored in a digital wallet on each user’s computer. Possession of the key that unlocks a transaction is the only prerequisite to spending bitcoins, putting the control entirely in the hands of each user. Bitcoin is a distributed, peer-to-peer system. As such there is no “central” server or point of control.
What is Bitcoin
Bitcoins are created through a process called “mining,” which involves competing to find solutions to a mathematical problem while processing bitcoin transactions. Any participant in the bitcoin network (i.e., anyone using a device running the full bitcoin protocol stack) may operate as a miner, using their computer’s processing power to verify and record transactions. Every 10 minutes on average, someone is able to validate the transactions of the past 10 minutes and is rewarded with brand new bitcoins. Essentially, it mining decentralizes the currency-issuance and clearing functions of a central bank and replaces the need for any central bank with this global competition. The bitcoin protocol includes built-in algorithms that regulate the mining function across the network. The difficulty of the processing task that miners must perform—to successfully record a block of transactions for the bitcoin network—is adjusted dynamically.
so that, on average, someone succeeds every 10 minutes regardless of how many miners (and CPUs) are working on the task at any moment. The protocol also halves the rate at which new bitcoins are created every four years, and limits the total number of bitcoins that will be created to a fixed total of 21 million coins. The result is that the number of bitcoins in circulation closely follows an easily predictable curve that reaches 21 million by the year 2140. Due to bitcoin’s diminishing rate of issuance, over the long term, the bitcoin currency is deflationary. Furthermore, it cannot be inflated by “printing” new money above and beyond the expected issuance rate. Behind the scenes, it is also the name of the protocol, a network, and a distributed computing innovation.
The bitcoin currency is really only the first application of this invention. As a developer, I see bitcoin as akin to the Internet of money, a network for propagating value and securing the ownership of digital assets via distributed computation. There’s a lot more to bitcoin than first meets the eye.
Bitcoin was invented in 2008 with the publication of a paper titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to- Peer Electronic Cash System,” written under the alias of Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto combined several prior inventions such as b-money and HashCash to create a completely decentralized electronic cash system that does not rely on a central authority for currency issuance or settlement and validation of transactions. The key innovation was to use a distributed computation system (called a “proof-of-work” algorithm) to conduct a global “election” every 10 minutes, allowing the decentralized network to arrive at consensus about the state of transactions. This elegantly solves the issue of double-spend where a single currency unit can be spent twice. Previously, the double-spend problem was a weakness of digital currency and was addressed by clearing all transactions through a central clearinghouse.
The bitcoin network started in 2009, based on a reference implementation published by Nakamoto and since revised by many other programmers. The distributed computation that provides security and resilience for it has increased exponentially, and now exceeds that combined processing capacity of the world’s top super-computers. it’s total market value is estimated at between 5 billion and 10 billion US dollars, depending on the bitcoin-to-dollar exchange rate. The largest transaction processed so far by the network was 150 million US dollars, transmitted instantly and processed without any fees. Satoshi Nakamoto withdrew from the public in April of 2011, leaving the responsibility of developing the code and network to a thriving group of volunteers. The identity of the person or people behind bitcoin is still unknown.
However, neither Satoshi Nakamoto nor anyone else exerts control over the bitcoin system, which operates based on fully transparent mathematical principles. The invention itself is groundbreaking and has already spawned new science in the fields of distributed computing, economics, and econometrics.
Bitcoin Uses, Users, and Their Stories
it is a technology, but it expresses money that is fundamentally a language for exchanging value between people. Let’s look at the people who are using it and some of the most common uses of the currency and protocol through their stories. We will reuse these stories throughout the book to illustrate the real-life uses of digital money and how they are made possible by the various technologies that are part of it.
North American low-value retail
Alice lives in Northern California’s Bay Area. She has heard about bitcoin from her techie friends and wants to start using it. We will follow her story as she learns about bitcoin, acquires some, and then spends some of her bitcoin to buy a cup of coffee at Bob’s Cafe in Palo Alto. This story will introduce us to the software, the exchanges, and basic transactions from the perspective of a retail consumer.
North American high-value retail
Carol is an art gallery owner in San Francisco. She sells expensive paintings for bitcoin. This story will introduce the risks of a “51%” consensus attack for retailers of high-value items.
Offshore contract services
Bob, the cafe owner in Palo Alto, is building a new website. He has contracted with an Indian web developer, Gopesh, who lives in Bangalore, India. Gopesh has agreed to be paid in bitcoin. This story will examine the use of bitcoin for outsourcing, contract services, and international wire transfers.
Eugenia is the director of a children’s charity in the Philippines. Recently she has discovered bitcoin and wants to use it to reach a whole new group of foreign and domestic donors to fundraise for her charity. She’s also investigating ways to use it to distribute funds quickly to areas of need. This story will show the use of it for global fundraising across currencies and borders and the use of an open ledger for transparency in charitable organizations.
Mohammed is an electronics importer in Dubai. He’s trying to use it to buy electronics from the US and China for import into the UAE to accelerate the process of payments for imports. This story will show how it can be used for large business-to business international payments tied to physical goods.
Mining for bitcoin
Jing is a computer engineering student in Shanghai. He has built a “mining” rig to mine for bitcoins, using his engineering skills to supplement his income. This story will examine the “industrial” base of bitcoin: the specialized equipment used to secure the bitcoin network and issue new currency.Each of these stories is based on real people and real industries that are currently using bitcoin to create new markets, new industries, and innovative solutions to global economic issues.
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