What is Ethereum? The Ultimate Beginners Guide

With the second largest market cap in the cryptocurrency world, Ethereum has drawn a lot of attention from investors and crypto enthusiasts alike.

This relatively new cryptocurrency not only presents a significant change to the status quo, it also allows for the quick development and deployment of new applications. Ethereum essentially enables dozens of new and extremely innovative cryptocurrencies to exist.

While Ethereum’s utility is obvious to programmers and the tech world at large, many people who are less tech-savvy have trouble understanding it. This guide to will appeal to both crowds and expose anyone from complete crypto beginners and intermediates to this potentially game-changing cryptocurrency.

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What is Ethereum?

EthereumSimply put, Ethereum is a blockchain-based decentralized platform on which decentralized applications (Dapps) can be built.

Remember, blockchain is the structure the vast majority of cryptocurrencies run on. It’s a database with no central server that keeps track of every transaction and exchange.

Ethereum’s appeal is that it is built in a way that enables developers to create smart contracts. Smart contracts are scripts that automatically execute tasks when certain conditions are met. For example, a smart contract could technically say, “pay Jane $10 if she submits a 1000 word article on goats by September 15, 2018,” and it would pay Jane once the conditions are met.

These smart contracts are executed by the Turing-complete Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM), run by an international public network of nodes.

The cryptocurrency of the Ethereum network is called ether. Ether serves two different functions:

  1. Compensate the mining full nodes that power its network. This keeps things running smoothly at an administrative level.
  2. Pay people under smart contract conditions. This is what motivates users to work on the Ethereum platform.

If you’re still a little confused, don’t worry. The underlying technology is complicated even at a surface level.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have a better understanding of Ethereum than 99.999% of people out there… and that’s a pretty good start!

We’ll go over things such as how Ethereum functions, Ethereum’s history, and some of the exciting dapps running on the Ethereum platform.

Welcome to a Wild Ride: Ethereum

In 2011, a 17 year old Russian-Canadian boy named Vitalik Buterin learned about Bitcoin from his father.

In 2013, after visiting developers across the world who shared an enthusiasm for programming, Buterin published a white-paper proposing Ethereum.

In 2014, Buterin dropped out of the University of Waterloo after receiving the Thiel Fellowship of $100,000 to work on Ethereum full-time.

In 2015, the Ethereum system went live.

In 2017, Ethereum hit a cap rate of $36 billion dollars.

Whether you’re looking at this from an investment standpoint, tech perspective, or witness to history; Ethereum is extremely exciting.

Buterin’s goal was to bring the same decentralization from Bitcoin to more than just currency. This could be accomplished by building a fully-fledged Turing-complete programming language into the Ethereum blockchain.

The Ethereum white paper goes into detail for some of the potential use cases, all of which could be built through decentralized apps on the Ethereum network. The list goes on and on:

  • Token Systems
  • Financial Derivatives
  • Identity and Reputation Systems
  • File Storage
  • Banking
  • Centralized Autonomous Organizations
  • Insurance
  • Data Feeds
  • Cloud Computing
  • Prediction Markets

By building these apps on the Ethereum network, these dapps can utilize Ethereum’s blockchain instead of having to create their own.

The Ethereum Virtual Machine

Early blockchain applications like Bitcoin only allowed users a set of predefined operations. For example, Bitcoin was created exclusively to operate as a cryptocurrency.

Unlike these early blockchain projects, Ethereum allows users to create their own operations. The Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) makes this possible. As Ethereum’s runtime environment, the EVM executes smart contracts. Since every Ethereum node runs the EVM, applications built on it reap the benefits of being decentralized without having to build their own blockchain.

Smart Contracts

Smart contracts are strings of computer code capable of automatically executing when certain predetermined conditions are met.

Instead of requiring a single central authority to say “yay” or “nay,” these contracts are self-operated. This not only makes the entire process more effective, it also makes it more fair and objective.

For example, a simple smart contract use case would be:

  • Jim wants to bet Sarah 100 Ether (ETH) that the price of ETH will be above $1000 on August 30th, 2018.
  • They agree on a data feed to be used to determine the ETH price.
  • They each escrow 100 ETH to a smart contract, with the winner taking the full 200 ETH.
  • On August 30th, 2018 the data feed is queried and the contract immediately executes sending money to the winner.

Using the smart contract, there’s no need for Jim and Sarah to trust each other. They just have to trust the data feed.

Keep in mind that this is only a very simple example. Many smart contracts are extremely complex and can work wonders.

The takeaway: Smart contracts can automate a variety of tasks, without requiring intermediaries. All a smart contract needs is the arbitrary rules written into it.

Ethereum vs Bitcoin

Ethereum vs BitcoinNow that you have a decent understanding of what Ethereum is and how it functions, it’s useful to consider how it compares to Bitcoin at a technical level.

While the two cryptocurrencies serve different purposes, Ethereum provides a number of benefits over Bitcoin:

  1. Shorter Block Times – On Ethereum, blocks are mined roughly every 15 seconds compared to Bitcoin’s 10-minutes rate.  This shorter time allows the blockchain to more quickly start confirming transaction data, although it also means more orphaned blocks.
  2. More Sophisticated Fee Structure – Ethereum transaction fees are based off storage needs and network usage. Bitcoin transactions are limited by block size and compete with each other.
  3. More Sophisticated Mining – Bitcoin mining currently requires ASICs (Application-Specific Integrated Circuits), necessitating a large amount of capital investment to mine.  Ethereum’s mining algorithm was designed with ASIC-resistance in mind, thus leveling the playing field and aiding in the decentralization of mining.

Ethereum arguably currently functions better than Bitcoin as a currency. With Ethereum, you can reliably send transactions faster, pay lower transaction fees, and mine at a more profitable rate (although it still has its downfalls for miners).

Future Updates to Ethereum

The future for Ethereum is bright, but it is not without its potential uncertainty.

A notable event on the horizon is the Metropolis hard fork that is set to occur in late September. This hard fork indicates some major upgrades for the platform including:

  1. Increased anonymity with new zero-knowledge proofs, or “zk-SNARKs.” This means users will be able to conduct transactions at much more secure levels of anonymity than ever before.
  2. Smart contracts and programming will be much easier to work with. Gas is also going to be adjusted for bill setting.
  3. Masking will increase security on the network. Users will be able to determine the address for which they have a private key, and this will protect them from quantum computer hacking.
  4. A “difficulty bomb” will be included in the upgraded, meaning mining will become much more difficult. This is a significant step as Ethereum transitions from proof-of-work (PoW) to proof-of-sake (PoS).

We won’t know how this hard fork will affect the price of Ethereum as markets could adjust in a variety of ways. If the upgrades attract more users, the price could rise. However, if mining becomes more difficult and slows, the price could fall.

The next upgrade after Metropolis is referred to as Serenity, which should increase stability and encourage more investment.

How to Buy Ethereum

The easiest way to invest in Ethereum is by using a cryptocurrency exchange. CoinCentral has compiled a list of the best exchanges where you can buy Ethereum.  On this page you can find key details of these exchanges, as well as links to their individual reviews and user guides.

If you’re new to the world of cryptocurrency, Coinbase offers one of the simplest ways to buy, sell, and store Ethereum.

Coinbase offers free BTC worth $10 for new joiners using this link

For those interested in regular trading, the following exchanges may be more suited to your needs:

  • Gemini
  • Kraken
  • GDAX
  • Bittrex
  • CEX.IO

Final Thoughts

While there is a lot of speculative interest around Ethereum, it’s important to note that the Ethereum and dapp communities are very much focused on building a tangible future.

Ethereum is a phenomenal application of the blockchain and has made it possible for hundreds of projects to exist.

This is a condensed version of an article originally published on CoinCentral written by Alex Moskov. Read the full article here.