“The first decentralized digital currency”

Bitcoin is a digital currency created in 2009. It follows the ideas set out in a white paper by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose true identity has yet to be verified.

Today's market cap for all bitcoin (abbreviated BTC or, less frequently, XBT) in circulation is around $95 Billion (26th Oct 2017)

Bitcoin offers the promise of lower transaction fees than traditional online payment mechanisms and is operated by a decentralized authority, unlike government-issued currencies.

There are no physical bitcoins, only balances kept on a public ledger in the cloud, that – along with all Bitcoin transactions – is verified by a massive amount of computing power. Bitcoins are not issued or backed by any banks or governments, nor are individual bitcoins valuable as a commodity. Despite its not being legal tender, Bitcoin charts high on popularity, and has triggered the launch of other virtual currencies collectively referred to as Altcoins.

Balances are kept using public and private "keys," which are long strings of numbers and letters linked through the mathematical encryption algorithm that was used to create them. The public key (comparable to a bank account number) serves as the address which is published to the world and to which others may send bitcoins. The private key (comparable to an ATM PIN) is meant to be a guarded secret, and only used to authorize Bitcoin transmissions.

History

Gold Money

Money, ultimately, is simply the tool that we use to exchange value. Throughout history we’ve used lots of things as money, from seashells, to precious metals, to salt. The most popular money, historically, has been gold. There’s good reason for this: gold works really well as money. It’s rare – so it’s not worthless, and it’s tangible so if you’re holding it in your hand it’s probably yours. Pretty simple. And this worked for thousands of years, no matter what social institutions exist around you, no matter who the king or government is at that particular time. Gold just worked.

Paper Money

Then came along a new invention: paper money. When you think about it, for someone who uses gold their whole life, paper money is a hard sell. Trust paper instead of metal? Well, paper money actually started out as just a representation of gold. For e.g. the US Dollar was originally just a “gold certificate” which is a piece of paper saying you own some gold that’s sitting in a vault at the treasury. In other words, people never trusted paper money, they trusted the government to hold the gold for them.

Fiat Money

Time passed, and the US has since abandoned the so-called “gold standard” during the 70’s and today the US Dollar is actually a “fiat” money. “Fiat” is a Latin word for “it shall be” which is another way of saying “forget about gold, let’s all just agree that this paper is worth something, ok?” And that apparently works, because we’re all using fiat money these days and we don’t have to have “hard currency” or “tangible money”. Paper money has some advantages and disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage is that paper is easy to counterfeit, something that’s practically impossible with gold. Almost anyone can simply print paper at home. But there must be advantages that make it worth this trouble, right? Fiat money is actually a form of digitization – that is, we’re dealing with numbers, not metals. This makes money much easier to count, manage and move. In fact, the vast majority of money these days are actually just numbers in computers, believe it or not.

Digital Money

So, if money today is digital, how does that even work? I mean, if I have a file that represents a dollar, what’s to stop me from copying it a million times and having a million dollars? This is called the “double spend problem”. The solution that banks use today is a “centralized” solution – they keep a ledger on their computer which keeps track of who owns what. Everyone has an account and this ledger keeps a tally for each account. We all trust the bank and the bank trusts their computer, and so the solution is centralized on this ledger in this computer.

Invention of Bitcoin

Satoshi Nakamoto publishes a paper describing how to solve this problem without a centralized solution – that is, without a bank. He called it “Bitcoin” and went on to describe how you can make a ledger that doesn’t rely on a single particular bank – this is, a decentralized solution. This may sound confusing, or at best like science fiction. How does something work if it’s decentralized? You actually already know the answer to this, you’re using a decentralized solution right now to watch this video: the internet.

Think about it: nobody owns the internet. It’s the most vast and powerful network that humans have ever created – but there is no “Internet Inc.” – so it’s decentralized. Lots of individuals and private companies all build the infrastructure of the internet, across companies and border and even ideologies, and it works – much thanks to profit motives and economic interests. So, if the internet decentralizes information technology, how does Bitcoin decentralize money?

Distributed ledger system

In Bitcoin, the coins (or rather the transactions) are all recorded in a ledger. So far, nothing new. The big deal with Bitcoin is that this ledger is public and shared. Not only, it’s also maintained by the public. Thousands of people have a copy of this ledger around the world, and anyone can download and verify this ledger. In Bitcoin, instead of accounts, money is moved between addresses – kind of like email.

If you think that this public ledger is easy to hack, try to imagine hacking the English language – you can probably hack into Oxford Dictionary computers and change some definitions, but that wouldn’t be a big problem. There are lots of copies of dictionaries all over the world – you can’t fool everyone by hacking only some of the copies. In Bitcoin, the dictionary that helps everyone stay on the same page is the ledger, and this ledger is called the “Blockchain”.

How Bitcoin Works

Bitcoin is one of the first digital currencies to use peer-to-peer technology to facilitate instant payments. The independent individuals and companies who own the governing computing power and participate in the Bitcoin network, also known as "miners," are motivated by rewards (the release of new bitcoin) and transaction fees paid in bitcoin. These miners can be thought of as the decentralized authority enforcing the credibility of the Bitcoin network. New bitcoin is being released to the miners at a fixed, but periodically declining rate, such that the total supply of bitcoins approaches 21 million. One bitcoin is divisible to eight decimal places (100 millionth of one bitcoin), and this smallest unit is referred to as a Satoshi. If necessary, and if the participating miners accept the change, Bitcoin could eventually be made divisible to even more decimal places.

Bitcoin mining is the process through which bitcoins are released to come into circulation. Basically, it involves solving a computationally difficult puzzle to discover a new block, which is added to the blockchain, and receiving a reward in the form of few bitcoins. The block reward was 50 new bitcoins in 2009; it decreases every four years. As more and more bitcoins are created, the difficulty of the mining process – that is, the amount of computing power involved – increases. Once, an ordinary desktop computer sufficed for the mining process; now, to combat the difficulty level, miners must use faster hardware like Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC), more advanced processing units like Graphic Processing Units (GPUs), etc.

Investing in Bitcoins

There are many Bitcoin supporters who believe that digital currency is the future. Those who endorse it are of the view that it facilitates a much faster, no-fee payment system for transactions across the globe. Although it is not itself any backed by any government or central bank, bitcoin can be exchanged for traditional currencies; in fact, its exchange rate against the dollar attracts potential investors and traders interested in currency plays. Indeed, one of the primary reasons for the growth of digital currencies like Bitcoin is that they can act as an alternative to national fiat money and traditional commodities like gold.

In March 2014, the IRS stated that all virtual currencies, including bitcoins, would be taxed as property rather than currency. Gains or losses from bitcoins held as capital will be realized as capital gains or losses, while bitcoins held as inventory will incur ordinary gains or losses.

Risks of Investing in Bitcoins

Though Bitcoin was not designed as a normal equity investment (no shares have been issued), some speculative investors were drawn to the digital money after it appreciated rapidly in May 2011 and again in November 2013. Thus, many people purchase bitcoin for its investment value rather than as a medium of exchange. But their lack of guaranteed value and digital nature means the purchase and use of bitcoins carries several inherent risks. Many investor alerts have been issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and other agencies.

The concept of a virtual currency is still novel and, compared to traditional investments, Bitcoin doesn't have much of a long term track record or history of credibility to back it. With their increasing use, bitcoins are becoming less experimental every day, of course; still, after eight years, they (like all digital currencies) remain in a development phase, still evolving. "It is pretty much the highest-risk, highest-return investment that you can possibly make,” says Barry Silbert, CEO of Digital Currency Group, which builds and invests in Bitcoin and blockchain companies.

Not for the risk-adverse, in other words. If you are considering investing in bitcoin, understand these unique investment risks:

Regulatory Risk: Bitcoins are a rival to government currency and may be used for black market transactions, money laundering, illegal activities or tax evasion. As a result, governments may seek to regulate, restrict or ban the use and sale of bitcoins, and some already have. Others are coming up with various rules. For example, in 2015, the New York State Department of Financial Services finalized regulations that would require companies dealing with the buy, sell, transfer or storage of bitcoins to record the identity of customers, have a compliance officer and maintain capital reserves. The transactions worth $10,000 or more will have to be recorded and reported.

Although more agencies will follow suit, issuing rules and guidelines, the lack of uniform regulations about bitcoins (and other virtual currency) raises questions over their longevity, liquidity and universality.

Security Risk: Bitcoin exchanges are entirely digital and, as with any virtual system, are at risk from hackers, malware and operational glitches. If a thief gains access to a Bitcoin owner's computer hard drive and steals his private encryption key, he could transfer the stolen Bitcoins to another account. (Users can prevent this only if bitcoins are stored on a computer which is not connected to the internet, or else by choosing to use a paper wallet – printing out the Bitcoin private keys and addresses, and not keeping them on a computer at all.) Hackers can also target Bitcoin exchanges, gaining access to thousands of accounts and digital wallets where bitcoins are stored. One especially notorious hacking incident took place in 2014, when Mt. Gox, a Bitcoin exchange in Japan, was forced to close down after millions of dollars’ worth of bitcoins were stolen.

This is particularly problematic once you remember that all Bitcoin transactions are permanent and irreversible. It's like dealing with cash: Any transaction carried out with bitcoins can only be reversed if the person who has received them refunds them. There is no third party or a payment processor, as in the case of a debit or credit card – hence, no source of protection or appeal if there is a problem.

Insurance Risk: Some investments are insured through the Securities Investor Protection Corporation. Normal bank accounts are insured through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) up to a certain amount depending on the jurisdiction. Bitcoin exchanges and Bitcoin accounts are not insured by any type of federal or government program.

Fraud Risk: While Bitcoin uses private key encryption to verify owners and register transactions, fraudsters and scammers may attempt to sell false bitcoins. For instance, in July 2013, the SEC brought legal action against an operator of a Bitcoin-related Ponzi scheme.

Market Risk: Like with any investment, Bitcoin values can fluctuate. Indeed, the value of the currency has seen wild swings in price over its short existence. Subject to high volume buying and selling on exchanges, it has a high sensitivity to “news." According to the CFPB, the price of bitcoins fell by 61% in a single day in 2013, while the one-day price drop in 2014 has been as big as 80%.

If fewer people begin to accept Bitcoin as a currency, these digital units may lose value and could become worthless. There is already plenty of competition, and though Bitcoin has a huge lead over the other 100-odd digital currencies that have sprung up, thanks to its brand recognition and venture capital money, a technological break-through in the form of a better virtual coin is always a threat.

Tax Risk: As bitcoin is ineligible to be included in any tax-advantaged retirement accounts, there are no good, legal options to shield investments from taxation.

Legality of bitcoin

The legal status of bitcoin varies substantially from country to country and is still undefined or changing in many of them. Whilst the majority of countries do not make the usage of bitcoin itself illegal (with the exceptions of: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ecuador & Kyrgyzstan), its status as money (or a commodity) varies, with differing regulatory implications. While some countries have explicitly allowed its use and trade, others have banned or restricted it. Likewise, various government agencies, departments, and courts have classified bitcoins differently. In India, the RBI has been repeatedly flagging concerns on virtual currencies like Bitcoins, stating that they pose potential financial, legal, customer protection and security-related risks. Though it has not been classified as illegal, RBI is yet to comment on its legality.

Date USD:1BTC Notes
Jan 2009 – Mar 2010 basically none No exchanges or market, users were mainly cryptography fans who were sending bitcoins for hobby purposes representing low or no value. In March 2010, user "SmokeTooMuch" auctioned 10,000 BTC for $50 (cumulatively), but no buyer was found.
Mar 2010 $0.003 On 17 Mar 2010, the now-defunct BitcoinMarket.com exchange is the first one that starts operating.
May 2010 less than $0.01 On 22 May 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz made the first real-world transaction by buying two pizzas in Jacksonville, Florida for 10,000 BTC.
July 2010 $0.08 In five days, the price grew 1000%, rising from $0.008 to $0.08 for 1 bitcoin.
Feb 2011 – April 2011 $1.00 Bitcoin takes parity with US dollar.
8 July 2011 $31.00 top of first "bubble", followed by the first price drop
Dec 2011 $2.00 minimum after few months
Dec 2012 $13.00 slowly rising for a year
11 April 2013 $266 top of a price rally, during which the value was growing by 5-10% daily.
May 2013 $130 basically stable, again slowly rising.
June 2013 $100 in June slowly dropping to $70, but rising in July to $110
Nov 2013 $350 — $1,242 from October $150–$200 in November, rising to $1,242 on 29 November 2013.
Dec 2013 $600 — $1,000 Price crashed to $600, rebounded to $1,000, crashed again to the $500 range. Stabilized to the ~ $650–$800 range.
Jan 2014 $750 — $1,000 Price spiked to $1000 briefly, then settled in the $800–$900 range for the rest of the month.
Feb 2014 $550 — $750 Price fell following the shutdown of Mt. Gox before recovering to the $600–$700 range.
Mar 2014 $450 — $700 Price continued to fall due to a false report regarding bitcoin ban in China and uncertainty over whether the Chinese government would seek to prohibit banks from working with digital currency exchanges.
Apr 2014 $340 — $530 The lowest price since the 2012–2013 Cypriot financial crisis had been reached at 3:25 AM on 11 April
May 2014 $440 — $630 The downtrend first slow down and then reverse, increasing over 30% in the last days of May.
Mar 2015 $200 — $300 Price fell through to early 2015.
Early Nov 2015 $395 — $504 Large spike in value from 225–250 at the start of October to the 2015 record high of $504.
May–June 2016 $450 — $750 Large spike in value starting from $450 and reaching a maximum of $750.
July–September 2016 $600 — $630 Price stabilized in the low $600 range.
October–November 2016 $600 — $780 As the Chinese Renminbi depreciated against the US Dollar, bitcoin rose to the upper $700s.
January 2017 $800 — $1,150
5-12 January 2017 $750 — $920 Price fell 30% in a week, reaching a multi-month low of $750.
2-3 March 2017 $1,290+ Price broke above the November 2013 high of $1,242 and then traded above $1,290.
April 2017 $1,210 — $1,250
May 2017 $2,000 Price reached a new high, reaching US$1,402.03 on 1 May 2017, and over US$1,800 on 11 May 2017. On 20 May 2017, the price of one bitcoin passed US$2,000 for the first time.
May–June 2017 $2,000 — $3,200+ Price reached an all-time high of $3,000 on 12 June and is oscilating around $2,500 since then. As of 6 August 2017, the price is $3,270.
August 2017 $4,400 On 5 August 2017, the price of one BTC passed US$3,000 for the first time. On 12 August 2017, the price of one BTC passed US$4,000 for the first time. Two days later, the price of one BTC passed US$4,400 for the first time.
September 2017 $5000 On 1 September 2017, bitcoin broke US$5,000 for the first time, topping out at US$5,013.91.
12 September 2017 $2900 Price dipped harshly from China's bitcoin ICO and exchange crackdown (Those following improper practices)
13 October 2017 $5600 Price shot back up as the world moves on past the incident following China's crackdown
21 October 2017 $6180 Price hit another all-time high as the impending forks draw closer

Bitcoin Exchanges

Exchanges provide highly varying degrees of safety, security, privacy, and control over your funds and information.

The popular exchanges in India are :

  • Coinsecure
  • Zebpay
  • Unocoin
  • LocalBitcoin