Welcome to the Ethereum syllabus! Chances are, you’re now diving a bit deeper into the crytocurrency world (beyond Bitcoin). Well, there is a ton more to learn, especially when it comes to Ethereum, because it is very powerful, and there’s a lot it can do.
By now, most people know Ethereum as the second most valuable cryptocurrency (depending on the time of reading), currently valued at over $70 billion dollars. Well, it turns out that Ethereum isn’t actually a cryptocurrency – it’s a software platform that let’s programmers build applications on top of blockchain technology. Within the Ethereum platform, is a cryptocurrency called ether that is used to power applications built on the Ethereum blockchain.
5From Bitcoin to Ethereum
Bitcoin uses a global network of computers that maintain a shared ledger called a blockchain that keeps track of who owns bitcoin. Once blockchain technology was introduced to the world, people realized that blockchains could be used to keep track of anything of value. In 2013, a 19 year old named Vitalik Buterin introduced the Ethereum White Paper, which proposed an open source platform that would let programmers build blockchain applications that could facilitate the exchange of money, content, property, shares or anything of value. Much like with Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper, Buterin’s was met with widespread excitement from software developers around the world who began building toward the vision Buterin laid out.
Much like Bitcoin, Ethereum isn’t owned or controlled by any one person. Unlike Bitcoin, whose creator remains anonymous, Ethereum has a leader in Vitalik Buterin. While Buterin doesn’t control Ethereum in the way that a CEO does, his word carries tremendous weight in dictating the direction of the project – something that is considered a strength or a weakness, depending on who you ask.
The basic function that programs built on Ethereum perform are called smart contracts. Smart contracts are digital agreements that execute automatically based on real world data. An easy way to think of them is an “If-then statement.” IF condition A exists, THEN perform function B.
Let’s say for example Grandma wants to make sure she never forgets to give Little Billy birthday money each year. She could write a smart contract that says IF it’s Little Billy’s birthday, THEN pay him $10 from Grandma’s account. Once this contract is broadcast to the Ethereum network, it will execute automatically each year on Little Billy’s birthday.
5Ethereum vs Ether
As stated in the intro, Ethereum is a platform for building blockchain applications using smart contracts. What you may have just purchased on Coinbase is called Ether, which is the cryptocurrency that fuels the Ethereum network.
Ether is the “Gasoline”
Ether functions more like a digital commodity than a digital currency. Just like you need gasoline to fuel your car, you need Ether to run applications on the Ethereum blockchain. In the Grandmother example cited above, Grandma would have to purchase small amounts of Ether to fuel her smart contract that pays Little Billy his birthday money.
Applications that run smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain are called “dApps,” or decentralized apps. Just as any app developer can build apps on top of Apple’s IOS operating system, developers can build on top of Ethereum’s blockchain infrastructure. To the end user of a dApp, it might not look and feel any different than the apps you use today. It’s the underlying blockchain infrastructure that make them different.
Since dApps function on top of the blockchain, they can be used to transfer value peer-to-peer. To return to our Grandmother example, there could be a dApp that Granny can download that lets her schedule Little Billy’s birthday payments without having to code the smart contract herself. dApps are also completely open sourced so other people can access the code and build on top of them. Someone could take the code to the birthday payment dApp and add the ability for Grandma to add a note that says, “Happy Birthday Billy!” Running dApps on the blockchain also offers added security benefits. Since the transactions are distributed and encrypted across the Ethereum blockchain, there is no central place for a hacker to breach and gain access to all of the world’s Grandmother to grandson birthday payment data.
So now that you understand that Ethereum is a network for building decentralized applications that require a cryptocurrency called Ether to run, I’m going to introduce a confusing concept. Many dApps built on Ethereum have their own cryptocurrencies or “tokens.” In order to interact with the dApps, customers need to purchase the dApp’s native token.
Here’s a helpful analogy I came across – when you go to a waterpark, you pay the admission fee and in return, you get a wristband. That wristband gives you the ability to ride the waterslides in the water park. With certain dApps, the token is the wristband, and a user must purchase it to interact with whatever the dApp offers.
ICO stands for, “Initial Coin Offering” which is a fundraising mechanism for cryptocurrencies which has exploded in popularity this year – the majority of them are held on the Ethereum network. Similar to a kickstarter campaign, they allow entrepreneurs to raise money for projects by giving investors an early opportunity to purchase the cryptocurrency before the final product has been built. If the project is successful, the value of the cryptocurrency will rise in value and early investors can sell it on the open market for a profit.
ICOs have stirred up a lot of controversy because they represent a risky proposition with zero investor protection. Let’s say I wanted to build a casino and to finance it, I gave investors the opportunity to buy chips that can be used at my roulette tables once the casino opened. If you bought $100K in roulette chips from me and I decide that I no longer want to build the casino, you’re stuck holding worthless chips. If investors don’t do their due diligence, they may end up buying tokens for a project whose creators never intended on building it in he first place – the creators walk away with the money and the investors have no way of recouping their funds.
4Far From Perfect
Ethereum has the potential to change the way humans transact with one another but it is still a very young technology and it hasn’t been without its problems. While the blockchain architecture underlying the Ethereum network is secure, not all of the applications built on top of it are. Faulty code can and has made applications vulnerable to hacking and malfunctions. Here are two prime examples:
DAO was a dApp built on Ethereum that enabled crowd based venture capital. DAO token holders were given the right to vote on projects they wanted to support – if projects went on to be successful, DAO token holders would receive financial rewards. The DAO ICO received $168 million in funding. The DAO software was hosted on the Ethereum blockchain and was publically visible by all. A hacker spotted a flaw in the DAO’s code that enabled him to route $55M in ether held by the DAO into an account that he controlled. Phil Daian did a full analysis of the attack if you’re interested in reading more about it. The Ethereum team had do do something called a hard fork (something I won’t get into now) to reverse return the stolen funds.
6Leading The Decentralized Revolution
“Ethereum aims to take the promise of decentralization, openness and security that is at the core of blockchain technology and brings it to almost anything that can be computed.” – Vitalik Buterin
With dApps, smart contracts and blockchain technology, Ethereum is leading the decentralized revolution. Bitcoin is the world’s first decentralized currency, that operates on a global network of computers outside of central intermediaries. Ethereum gives programmers a platform to develop a decentralized version of just about anything.