by Emma Newbery | Published on Sept. 15, 2021
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Have cryptocurrencies outgrown their function as digital payments?
When Bitcoin (BTC) launched, it promised a payment revolution -- a way for people to exchange digital money without the need for an intermediary (like a bank or government). Payments could be processed almost instantaneously rather than over several days. Plus, it would be cheaper and more secure.
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Only a small percentage of today's transactions are carried out in cash. Customers use debit and credit cards, bank transfers, payment apps, and many other forms of electronic payment.
However, there's a difference between a regular currency that can be transferred electronically and a digital currency. A digital currency doesn't have a physical form. You'll never be able to hold an actual Bitcoin in your hand. You could, however, withdraw paper dollars from your bank account and put them in your wallet or under your mattress.
Cryptocurrencies will always be digital. And the idea of decentralization is that cryptocurrencies exist outside of banks or other financial institutions.
Unfortunately, so far the Bitcoin network has proved too slow and volatile to make it a realistic global digital payment option. Just this year we've seen the price rise from around $29,000 at the start of January to a high of over $64,000 in April. It then halved in the following few months.
Some believe Bitcoin has value as a store of wealth, a bit like digital gold. Others think that second-layer solutions (an extra framework that sits on top of the existing blockchain) could improve its speed and make it more viable for use as payment.
Bitcoin has successfully spawned a host of other cryptocurrencies -- over 11,000 and counting. Some are pure digital payment currencies that aim to be faster than Bitcoin. Others are capable of transforming whole industries, from healthcare to supply chains. In this article, we'll focus on pure payment coins.
Since speed is one of the limiting factors for Bitcoin, it isn't surprising that newer payment cryptocurrencies aim to be faster. In fact, at 7 transactions per second (TPS), Bitcoin is the slowest cryptocurrency. To give some context: Visa says it can process around 24,000 TPS.
Here's how other coins stack up.
The first cryptocurrency to use smart contracts. Ethereum's network is used by many other cryptocurrencies and applications.
Zcash is a digital currency that prioritizes privacy. It is accepted by various third-party payment providers and advertises itself as a good way to pay family and friends.
This digital currency became popular as a cash alternative in Venezuela during the country's economic crisis. The Dash app works on various devices and has ATMs around the world.
Litecoin launched in 2011. It has four times as many total available coins as Bitcoin and finalizes transactions four times faster. Interestingly, its open-source software was the basis for the popular meme-currency Dogecoin.
Launched in 2017 as a way to facilitate smaller, faster payments, it is a fork of Bitcoin. That means it branched off from the original code, but the basic workings are very similar.
Monero is a privacy-focused blockchain and payment system. It prioritizes anonymity by disguising the wallet addresses of network users.
Ripple is an international payment system that ranks in the top 10 cryptos. However, it's been hampered by an ongoing SEC lawsuit focused on whether its cryptocurrency should have been sold as a security.
Solana is built for speed. It's more than a digital payment crypto, as it's also a platform where developers can build apps. It has been criticized for sacrificing security in the interest of speed.
The scope of what cryptocurrencies can do has moved beyond acting purely as a form of digital payment. For example, Ethereum and Solana are programmable blockchains that can also be used to build applications. It makes cryptocurrencies that only operate in the payment space feel somewhat two-dimensional.
The popularity of stablecoins and the possible introduction of govcoins could also pose significant competition for pure payment cryptos.
Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies that avoid volatility by pegging their value to a commodity like gold or the U.S. dollar. They offer the speed and cheap transactions of digital currencies, but without the wild price fluctuations. The trouble is that it isn't always clear whether stablecoins are backed by adequate cash reserves.
Govcoins, or central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), are starting to come to the fore. The Fed is considering a digital dollar, and China is already piloting its digital yuan. These coins use blockchain technology, so transactions could be fast and cheap. But they would be backed by the government, just like the dollars in your bank account.
There's a lot of debate about the pros and cons of CBDCs. But if more governments decide to launch their own coins, it's hard to see how the likes of Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin could compete.
Bitcoin is different because few people view it primarily as a form of payment. And some of these digital payment coins also offer increased privacy or have adopted more environmentally friendly methods of mining, which may set them apart. But fundamentally, being faster than Bitcoin alone is unlikely to be enough to help some of these coins survive long term.
There are hundreds of platforms around the world that are waiting to give you access to thousands of cryptocurrencies. And to find the one that's right for you, you'll need to decide what features that matter most to you.
To help you get started, our independent experts have sifted through the options to bring you some of our best cryptocurrency exchanges for 2021. Check out the list here and get started on your crypto journey, today.
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Emma Newbery owns Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dash, Bitcoin Cash, Ripple, and Solana.