Ethereum introduction. What exactly is it? Why care? How to invest?
[Note, this write up serves an an update to “Ethereum for Everyone”.]
Ethereum is a technology that nearly anyone in the world can use, build on, and invest in. This technology provides an update to the internet, a “web3”. Tens of thousands of developers are building applications with Ethereum, more than any other technology of its kind, and Ethereum has started to grow exponentially.
Ethereum provides a way to create sophisticated “smart” contracts or agreements. The agreement can have few, to no, middlemen. In this sense, it is a way to build applications that are more “decentralized”, meaning, less dictated by companies, or other central authorities. This is not to be “anti-establishment”, in fact, as you can read below, even mainstream companies are starting to build on Ethereum. Ethereum helps to streamline agreements and provides exciting new opportunities for economic growth. Basically, nearly anything to do with money can benefit from Ethereum technology.
Ethereum is a “blockchain” technology.
Ethereum is a “blockchain” technology, and the most important of these technologies by a very large margin with respect to innovation and application. You may have heard of “Bitcoin”, which is a type of blockchain too. Ethereum is not Bitcoin, although it can do what Bitcoin does faster and cheaper. But Ethereum can do much more than Bitcoin. While Ethereum is not intended to replace Bitcoin, some feel that such an event is likely to happen eventually, regardless.
So what is a blockchain? A blockchain is a just a collection, or record, of transaction (a ledger) that is recorded digitally, chronologically (in order of events), and openly within a community. The transactions could be financial information, but really, they can be any information. Sounds boring? Maybe. But what it can do is far from boring. A public blockchain means this “ledger” is open to everyone in the world. In fact, no company or country can control a public blockchain. For the average person, this may sound scary, at first, but it is actually very beneficial, even for companies and countries.
A public blockchain maintains an accurate, community-agreed upon, public ledger that is immune to fraud by third parties. Entire countries can come to trusted agreements even if they do not actually trust each other. Even US defense giants, like DARPA, and a wide range of government representatives, see ways to use blockchain technology for cybersecurity because blockchains enhance data integrity. In fact, attempts to attack the ledger becomes openly visible, and any exploit in the coding of the technology is openly fixable by a community through a consensus. If another group happens to not agree with the consensus, they can start a different community maintaining a different blockchain, or a copy of the old blockchain. This is remarkably useful. But this is just scratching the surface of what Ethereum can do.
Ethereum, while still relatively young, has enchanted the hearts of developers (such as software engineers). Ethereum, by a large margin, has the largest number of developers, dominating this creative mindshare more than any other blockchain technology. It is currently estimated that there are at least 20,000 developers (some feel much more) that have started working with Ethereum. In fact, Devcon, Ethereum’s annual developer conference, has become the largest blockchain developer conference in the world. Ethereum simply dominates blockchain innovation. While Ethereum is still in an “early adopter phase”, the massive growth in developer momentum is the best indicator for the future.
How does the Ethereum public blockchain support itself?
Terms here are can be confusing, so by way of introduction: “Ethereum” is a technology. The Ethereum public blockchain is the most popular use of this technology, often compared to “bitcoin”, but much more useful. People often use the term “Ethereum” to refer to the Ethereum public blockchain, which is understandable, but it is important to remember that Ethereum is also a technology that can be used even outside of the public chain.
“Ether” or ETH is a token, or “coin” or Ethereum-money, that supports the public Ethereum chain. These “coins” can be “mined” by anyone in the world by dedicating some computer power to the task. In this way, supporting Ethereum is decentralized. Everyone can pitch in. Anyone in the world. But as a early adopter, don’t worry about mining for now. It requires a whole other write up to explain the ins and outs.
The important thing is that mining creates “ether”. Work is involved in generating these tokens, much like work is involved in digging up gold and silver. This work has value. The token it generates, “ether” has value. The value of “ether” (abbreviated ETH) also comes from the fact that every application running Ethereum’s public chain pays the network in ETH (in this case, they call it a “gas” fee, but the “gas” is fraction of ETH). As the network grows, ETH’s value grows. But this isn’t the only way ETH is used. The above attributes give ETH real value, it support a network, such things with real value can be great “stores of value”, like a saving account. They can also be used as real money, for purchasing goods and services. Also, many developers build application that use ETH in other unique ways. For example, as a “web3”, one might want an Ethereum web address. Securing such an address is done so using ETH. ETH is a world currency. ETH is “gas” for web3. ETH is a store of value. ETH is many many things. And you don’t need to “mine” ETH to get ETH. At the end of this post, I provide a list of popular exchanges where you can buy and exchange ETH.
Breaking a myth about “ETH”. It should be noted that some other blockchain supporters see Ethereum as a threat to their favorite blockchain. There is some serious “tribalism” this space. Ethereum developers have a pretty strong reputation for being civil and respectful of other technologies, but sadly, a minority of very vocal and influential Bitcoin supporters exhibit less than civil behavior. It is a minority, but it might not seem as such given how vocal they are. As a result, there is the occasional propagation of Ethereum “myths”.
This post is not here to “myth” bust. The bottom line is Ethereum is support by big mainstream players now, including some fortune 500 companies. Ethereum’s massive developer conference alone is a real world, visible, fundamental demonstration of its growing ecosystem. That said, I’ll bust one myth: that ETH supply is “limitless” and so how can it have value, with the argument that Bitcoin’s supply is capped, creating more demand. To start, this “cap” with Bitcoin will not hit for decades, likely, we will all be dead by the time it hits (assuming it hits at all, and the rules are not changed to strengthen the network). Moreover, what matters is not whether there is “capped” or “uncapped”, but whether demand for the token grows with respect to supply. For Ethereum, the creation of new tokens by mining is trivial, so trivial, that current projections suggest the ecosystem will be slightly deflationary. If you are confused by what that means, to simplify, token generation, “capped”, “uncapped”, are utter distractions in this space. The real value in this space will be driven by growth and utility because Bitcoin and Ethereum both have trivial generation of new tokens relative to these more important factors.
So what is being built on Ethereum?
The Ethereum public blockchain is by far the largest, most encompassing, application of the Ethereum technology. As noted, when some people say “Ethereum”, they are really just referring to this particular blockchain. There are also very interesting private, permission-only, versions of the Ethereum blockchain. There are also a few Ethereum clones. However, in this piece, I focus on the Ethereum public blockchain.
Ethereum is a technological milestone. Unlike the blockchain technologies that came before it, Ethereum is much more than a peer to peer payment system. Ethereum has a “virtual machine” (aka, the Ethereum Virtual Machine or EVM). Which enables Ethereum to run not just a simple payment systems, but rather, more complex computer scripts known as “smart contracts”. Ethereum’s public blockchain has been specifically designed to be a decentralized application platform. This means that Ethereum can run apps that are similar to apps you might find on a computer or smartphone, but in a way that shares the blockchains unique ledger-like features. For the Ethereum public blockchain, this means apps that can be decentralized, potentially owned by no company and no country, and yet globally accessible, secure, transparent, as well as many more incredible characteristics, depending the developers’ desires.
This is the building of a new economy. The Ethereum public blockchain provides an app store owned by no company and an asset, ETH, controlled by no government. This is the next version of the internet, an “intelligent internet”, a “Web 3”. This is a “world computer”. This is the beginning of something that will change how the world economy works, and not in a way that should be frightening to people or governments, but in a way that should be thought of as innovative, streamlined, better, with exciting opportunities for business growth and information security, including a country’s most precious information. This is a technology that reflects a rising tide that lifts all boats.
I think providing some examples of what is being done with the Ethereum public blockchain is a stronger way to explain my argument. Below are some examples. It seems clear now that Ethereum is becoming a technological standard for a combined industry that will soon be worth trillions.
A brief word of caution — Ethereum technology is still very young. Some apps will succeed, but many will fail (like any other global market), and many of the development projects below have just gotten started. The examples below are not endorsements. Rather, they are examples of very early applications currently being built on the Ethereum public blockchain to better express how rapidly the ecosystem is growing and how incredibly far it reaches. There is good reason why major governments and fortune 500 companies are experimenting with Ethereum technology (both for public and private uses cases). But this is still the early adoption, early development phase. That is good, very good, for investors. But it requires wisdom, caution and acceptance of risks.
- Mega uber supercomputing — How about using an open source, globally accessible, unstoppable, super computer and hard drive made of the otherwise idle resources of Ethereum platform users, from tiny laptops to giant data centers? Ethereum’s public blockchain provides a framework for distributed “cloud computing”. Overall, Ethereum’s public blockchain is becoming an amazing global resource that can be used for nearly everything one can imagine in super computing, from science, computer graphics, business, machine learning, really the imagination is the limit, and once again, everyone in the world can contribute and have access (ex. Golem, iEx, Dfinity). Similarly, such cloud computing allows cloud storage (ex. Swarm, Storj).
- Fight counterfeiting — According to International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition Inc., counterfeiting cost U.S. businesses over $400+ Billion annually. Imagine if there was a way for you, or your business, to track exactly where your materials come from to insure quality and prevent counterfeiting. A record that is free from fraud, not dependent on any single nation, company, or person (ex. Provenance, Chronicled). This also is an application of the “Internet of Things (IoT)”, which I will talk about more later.
- Start a company — Want to create and maintain, a globally impactful company from your home, and never really need to manage it heavily. A company whose employees cannot be defined by a central location, can be recruited globally, and are uniquely skilled to meet the needs of the company (ex. Colony, Aragon, Maker). Similarly, for such companies, what if you could create a governance platform in which all stakeholders could table a proposal, and those proposals could be voted on democratically, without fraud, and with assured proposal execution (ex. Boardroom).
- Network and secure intellectual property — What if your blog, or other published work, was part of a next-generation, planetary-scale, information and social media network that was immune to censorship, and permanently recorded, un-erasable, through the rest of human’s foreseeable existence. Ethereum’s public blockchain allows for a uncensorable, globally accessible, permanent storage of information (ex. AKASHA).
- Superior prediction — What if you could find out what something is worth to the world, prior to that item actually being available to purchase. “Something” and “Worth”, here, is very broadly defined. It could be a work of physical art (such a painting), or a service (such as flight insurance), the value of a company’s stock, or the likelihood of a person winning a presidential election. These are called “prediction markets”. Ethereum’s public blockchain allows one to build a decentralized prediction market, which means these markets can never be switched off, everyone is empowered to start one, they individually cost next to nothing, and the entire world can contribute to the prediction (ex. Augur, Gnosis).
- Super auditing — What if you could have easy auditing, where accounting records cannot be altered by companies or individuals, and are accessible (whether encrypted or not) from anywhere for all foreseeable time because they are not dependent on any single device, server, company or country. This is a massive overall for how any accounting would work, and it applies to MANY Ethereum projects (ex. Balanc3, and many others as a bonus attribute)
- Digitized perks and asset value — Airlines have airline miles. Hotels have points. Maybe your coffee house has a punch card. What if these merits, or tokens, were a part of nearly everything with value. Also, what if you could interoperate such tokens, and make them exchangeable through a decentralized open market accessible to the entire world. Ethereum’s public blockchain is excellent at pulling this off. In fact, Ethereum provides a foundation for creating tokens in a compliant “standard” (for example “ERC 20”), facilitating interoperation. Trading these tokens will be seamless (ex. EtherDelta, 0x, Oasis Pro, Swap, Bancor). In fact, on the Ethereum public blockchain, one can set up a decentralized platform for maintaining portfolios of any digital asset (ex. PRISM). Also, we are not just talking airline miles here. The successful, billion-dollar, messaging app Kik is creating an Ethereum token. And it can be bigger! What if you token a country’s currency (aka fiat)? In fact, a country could opt to token their fiat to turn it into “smart money”, making it more applicable to Web 3 and the Internet of Things. Moreover, this process is not dependent on a country. One could provide a simple exchange service to tokenize any type of fiat maintaining the 1:1 exchange rate for the government issues currency (ex. CodeTract, Decentralized Capital). Also, it does not need to be just fiat, it could be any asset, such as gold (ex. Digix), oil (ex. Bilur) and real estate (ex. Rex, REIDAO). This is one of the most serious revolutionary applications of the Ethereum public blockchain.
- Fair bets — Casinos are fun. Gambling can be fun. But if you are smart, you know, the house always wins. Always. After all, they need a cut; it is a business after all. But how fair of a cut do they get exactly? Where do they set their profits? How do you know that the games a provably fair? Is there any evidence? Well, on the Ethereum public blockchain, one can create a contract-based casino where the games are absolutely provably fair, giving the house no real advantage (at least one not communicated) and with full transparency. Honestly, if such options were available, there would be no better casino to risk your money (ex. Etheroll, Winsome).
- Better loans and credit — How about a loan? Or some insurance? Or a rotating savings and credit? Currently, lending circles, where groups of trusted ordinary people come together to provide loans, insurance, and credit for each other have become remarkably popular, with total market in the $100s of billions. Essentially, we are talking about “credit”, a concept older than money. One problem is that centralized companies that provide these services have are profit based (poor rates), not to mention pose risks to hackers and fraud. The Ethereum public blockchain cuts out much of the middle man, providing stronger decentralization, global scope, and person to person options (ex. Etherloan, Etherisc, WeTrust, Weifund).
- Video game economy — Love video games? Love getting cool gaming items when you play? Wish you could sell those items when you are done with the game instead or throwing away your hard work? Or, how about competitive play? Do you wish you could challenge people to put their money where their mouth is? This is a new market that is perfect for decentralized platforms like Ethereum (ex. FirstBlood, Ownage). In fact, games could be designed to provide Ethereum tokens directly, providing new options for the gaming economy (ex. Nexium).
- Banks and charity — There is approximately two billion people that are unbankable because of their restricted income, or rural locations; Ethereum is changing it. In fact, for everyone, Ethereum’s public blockchain provides a platform that dissolves barriers to banking and payments, with no needs for bank branches (ex. Humaniq, Omise Go). Even the United Nations launched a large scale test of using Ethereum to distribute funds for aid, (yes, the United Nations!!!) and others have used it to rebuild public trust in charities.
- Mobile text/payment/browsing — Holding tokens, like ETH, is nice, but what about spending them outside of apps, for example, to buy a coffee? (ex. Plutus, TokenCard) It would be great to be able to text anyone in the world a small tip, or payment? More traditional apps are starting to work like this, such as WeChat (mostly in China), and they are growing in popularity, with billions of monthly users. But using Ethereum’s open protocol, these services can be available to entire world, even those that are unable to setup traditional bank accounts (see projects umaniq, Omise Go mentioned in “Banking and charity” for beneficiaries). But this is not just about altruism. This is about a completely open world financial system. Honestly, an entire book could be written on the potential here, but to sum up, this is a trillion dollar industry well poised for transformation by the Ethereum public blockchain. Moreover, some of these apps are being designed to provide access to all of Ethereum’s other public decentralized applications (ex. Status, Toshi).
- Asset management and investing — This emerging new economy provides new management and investment opportunities and we are already beginning to see a healthy internal organization emerging. For example, while ETH is the primary token of Ethereum’s public blockchain, Ethereum’s ERC tokens (see Digitized perks and value) also have value. The complex economy emerging around these tokens may make it difficult to decide with which to invest, hold, secure, etc. Expert digital asset management are emerging to assist, creating services such as “index” funds, markets, etc. to help. The businesses are also building on the Ethereum’s public blockchain (ex. Iconomi, Melonport, Taas, Omise) to benefit from the various attractive qualities the blockchain provides (open, transparent, lower costs, decentralized, etc).
- Empowering creators — There is a huge disconnect between artists, producers, writers, and really the entire media industry. Ethereum’s public blockchain can benefit the entire industry, with strong paths to ownership and control by the content creators, while at the same time novel, cost effective, ways for content creators to reach agreements with producers, directors, actors, crew and be able to define royalty and rights management in a way that transparent and fair (ex. JAAK, Ujo, SingularDTV).
- Open world knowledge base — Wikipedia great. In fact, I would argue Wikipedia is up there with the printing press for its impact on the world. But what if we can make something like Wikipedia more accurate, and more detailed, by rewarding strong contributions and peer review. Also, what if we could make it uncensored, with no central administrator. Finally, what if all this world’s information could be immortalized on the distributed Ethereum public blockchain, never dependent on central servers (ex. Lunyr).
- Matchmaking — Finding a date, new friends, like-minded people, or organizing a club, the Ethereum public blockchain can change all of it. That is a huge market. Such applications on the Ethereum public blockchain have some unique attributes. They could be absolutely free for casual users, but with token rewards embedded within the system; they could be incentivized in a fair and transparent way. In fact, such match making could be used to find workers for a project, basically a nuanced version of global job market, recruitment and crowdsourcing labor (ex. ChronoBank, Ethlance).
- Internet of Things (IoT) — Devices are starting to talk to other devices autonomously. Smart homes? Sure. But even smart cities! And cities are looking at Ethereum for solutions. For example, ConsenSys, an Ethereum firm, are the official blockchain advisers for Dubai. This is going to be bigger than big. The Ethereum public blockchain is the ideal home for IoT applications. Coupled with smart contracts, the Ethereum rapid transaction options (ex. Raiden), the Ethereum public blockchain is the most capable IoT blockchain there is, and by far. This is another area that an entire book could be written dedicated to Ethereum. Also, these same technologies allow you to pretty much share anything and be compensated (ex. Project Oaken, Slock.it).
Given this sample of projects currently being actively build on the Ethereum public blockchain, I think it should be obvious that everything is starting to change. Fortune 500 companies have really taken notice of Ethereum, strongly considering what the Ethereum public blockchain and Ethereum’s is more private strategies can bring to business. Take a quick look at the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance to truly see how big this is getting. It is becoming a “who’s who of planet earth”, a ground swell, a revolution! While investing in any blockchain should be considered part of your higher risks strategies, the potential here, in my opinion, is like nothing I have seen.
Synergy, ICOs and Capital
Ethereum startups benefit from substantial synergies. While somewhat dated because the ecosystem is greatly expanded, there are other blog posts well worth a read on the subject (ex. here). Basically, these different ETH-based enterprises benefit from various redundancies (creating competition fostering innovation) but also working together, building out an exciting complex ecology.
Also, many of the above start ups are remarkably well supported. Much like any clever startup, there is support from general investors, for some, this includes big names, including fortune 500 companies. But also, these start up have often gained unprecedented capital through “initial coin offerings” or ICOs. ICOs are risky endeavours where trust in the teams behind the ICO may be questionable. However, not all ICOs are created equal, therefore I am greatly oversimplifying by clumping them all together. Many of the ICO teams are run by people well known within the developer community, gaining as much trust as one might expect for any start-up if not more (an odd reality where social networks and venture capital collide).
Nevertheless, the upside to ICO to the public is quite strong when run by trusted peoples. For one, you don’t need to be rich, or part of an elite, to participate. The world has access to support and benefit from innovative developers. Moreover, ICO are creating a unprecedented network effect for Ethereum’s public chain, creating massive expansions in mind share, each team essentially its own node in a rapidly expanding mesh of developers. The only analogy to this may be the creation of the internet itself, but really, the full impact is unlikely to be well understood for years to come. Nevertheless, the ICO has created multiple teams working on Ethereum’s public chain for the foreseeable future.
Before you jump into investing in Ethereum’s public blockchain, you may want to know — Does Ethereum have any competition?
Ok, ok, ok not exactly true. There are other very interesting blockchain technologies out there, really clever stuff, and many of which are likely to work extremely well alongside Ethereum (see example below).
There are also some newer ideas for smart contract blockchains beginning to emerge. While they are years behind, they are often still very clever, and will be exciting to watch. That said, Ethereum’s competition is often very exaggerated. The real world gauge is the developers. Take a look. Absolutely nothing compares to Ethereum’s Devcon (developer conference). It is enormous, growing exponentially, and is real “boots on the ground” evidence that Ethereum really has no competition at this time. Ethereum is web3.
A couple of other tips.
If you want to chat more about Ethereum, I would strongly encourage you to join reddit and subscribe to ethtrader. It is a remarkable community, levels above any other blockchain market talk. Also, seriously avoid the lure of day-trading cryptocurrencies. Day trading is for suckers and charlatans. Instead, look for fundamentals. Do you see growth in the ecosystem? If so, consider investing wisely.
So how do I invest or get involved?
For new folks that are just wanting to invest early, go buy some Ether or ETH at an exchange that includes “cryptocurrencies” which is likely available in your country (a list provided below). You can keep that ETH on the exchange, or for added security, I strongly encourage you learn a little about hard wallets for digital currencies (ex. Ledger Nano S). There are other Ethereum wallets and browsers as well, and as you learn more about Ethereum, you will be able to use these these to participate in Web 3 (and some have started using Ethereum without even knowing they are using it).
So when is the cryptocurrency (blockchain) bubble going to pop? :) We’ve just got started. Remember, crypto isn’t a stock. You can’t use stocks as coins. You can’t build an upgraded internet on stocks. You need a broker to buy stocks. Fewer people can be involved. All this means that cryptocurrencies like ETH will have much higher valuations than traditional stocks, all other things being equal. How big can these valuations get? If Ethereum does become a second layer to the internet, a market capitalization well over a trillion dollars is not unreasonable.
As for exchanges, I apologize if your country is not listed below, but I suggest asking ethtrader for help if you need it!
America, US dollars
South Korean Won
Besides investing, you can also build on, or with, Ethereum. There a multiple communities ready to help you get started if you are an aspiring developer or entrepreneur.
To start, visit:
And read up, maybe browsing
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Ethereum = 0x7c01f87Bd578C8853e541a7e2c982910FB60928F