What Are Cryptocurrencies?
Before we take a closer look at some of these alternatives to Bitcoin, let’s step back and briefly examine what we mean by terms like cryptocurrency and altcoin. A cryptocurrency, broadly defined, is virtual or digital money that takes the form of tokens or “coins.” While some cryptocurrencies have ventured into the physical world with credit cards or other projects, the large majority remain entirely intangible.
The “crypto” in cryptocurrencies refers to complicated cryptography which allows for the creation and processing of digital currencies and their transactions across decentralized systems. Alongside this important “crypto” feature of these currencies is a common commitment to decentralization; cryptocurrencies are typically developed as code by teams who build in mechanisms for issuance (often, although not always, through a process called “mining”) and other controls.
Cryptocurrencies are almost always designed to be free from government manipulation and control, although as they have grown more popular this foundational aspect of the industry has come under fire. The currencies modeled after Bitcoin are collectively called altcoins, and in some cases “shitcoins,” and have often tried to present themselves as modified or improved versions of Bitcoin. While some of these currencies may have some impressive features that Bitcoin does not, matching the level of security that Bitcoin’s networks achieve has largely yet to be seen by an altcoin.
Below, we’ll examine some of the most important digital currencies other than Bitcoin. First, though, a caveat: it is impossible for a list like this to be entirely comprehensive. One reason for this is the fact that there are more than 4,000 cryptocurrencies in existence as of January 2021. While many of these cryptos have little to no following or trading volume, some enjoy immense popularity among dedicated communities of backers and investors.
Beyond that, the field of cryptocurrencies is always expanding, and the next great digital token may be released tomorrow. While Bitcoin is widely seen as a pioneer in the world of cryptocurrencies, analysts adopt many approaches for evaluating tokens other than BTC. It’s common, for instance, for analysts to attribute a great deal of importance to the ranking of coins relative to one another in terms of market cap. We’ve factored this into our consideration, but there are other reasons why a digital token may be included in the list, as well.
Top 5 Cryptocurrencies
1. Ethereum (ETH)
The first Bitcoin alternative on our list, Ethereum, is a decentralized software platform that enables Smart Contracts and Decentralized Applications (DApps) to be built and run without any downtime, fraud, control, or interference from a third party. The goal behind Ethereum is to create a decentralized suite of financial products that anyone in the world can have free access to, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or faith. This aspect makes the implications for those in some countries more compelling, as those without state infrastructure and state identifications can get access to bank accounts, loans, insurance, or a variety of other financial products.
The applications on Ethereum are run on its platform-specific cryptographic token, ether. Ether is like a vehicle for moving around on the Ethereum platform and is sought by mostly developers looking to develop and run applications inside Ethereum, or now, by investors looking to make purchases of other digital currencies using ether. Ether, launched in 2015, is currently the second-largest digital currency by market cap after Bitcoin, although it lags behind the dominant cryptocurrency by a significant margin. As of January 2021, ether’s market cap is roughly 19% of Bitcoin’s size.
In 2014, Ethereum launched a pre-sale for ether which received an overwhelming response; this helped to usher in the age of the initial coin offering (ICO). According to Ethereum, it can be used to “codify, decentralize, secure and trade just about anything.” Following the attack on the DAO in 2016, Ethereum was split into Ethereum (ETH) and Ethereum Classic (ETC). As of January 2021, Ethereum (ETH) had a market cap of $138.3 billion and a per token value of $1,218.59.
In 2021 Ethereum plans to change its consensus algorithm from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake. This move will allow Ethereum’s network to run itself with far less energy as well as improved transaction speed. Proof-of-stake allows network participants to “stake” their ether to the network. This process helps to secure the network and process the transactions that occur. Those who do this are rewarded ether similar to an interesting account. This is an alternative to Bitcoin’s proof-of-work mechanism where miners are rewarded more Bitcoin for processing transactions.
2. Litecoin (LTC)
Litecoin, launched in 2011, was among the first cryptocurrencies to follow in the footsteps of Bitcoin and has often been referred to as “silver to Bitcoin’s gold.” It was created by Charlie Lee, an MIT graduate, and former Google engineer. Litecoin is based on an open-source global payment network that is not controlled by any central authority and uses “script” as a proof of work, which can be decoded with the help of CPUs of consumer-grade. Although Litecoin is like Bitcoin in many ways, it has a faster block generation rate and hence offers a faster transaction confirmation time. Other than developers, there are a growing number of merchants who accept Litecoin. As of January 2021, Litecoin had a market cap of $10.1 billion and a per token value of $153.88, making it the sixth-largest cryptocurrency in the world.
3. Cardano (ADA)
Cardano is an “Ouroboros proof-of-stake” cryptocurrency that was created with a research-based approach by engineers, mathematicians, and cryptography experts. The project was co-founded by Charles Hoskinson, one of the five initial founding members of Ethereum. After having some disagreements with the direction Ethereum was taking, he left and later helped to create Cardano.
The team behind Cardano created its blockchain through extensive experimentation and peer-reviewed research. The researchers behind the project have written over 90 papers on blockchain technology across a range of topics. This research is the backbone of Cardano.
Due to this rigorous process, Cardano seems to stand out among its proof-of-stake peers as well as other large cryptocurrencies. Cardano has also been dubbed the “Ethereum killer” as its blockchain is said to be capable of more. That said, Cardano is still in its early stages. While it has beaten Ethereum to the proof-of-stake consensus model it still has a long way to go in terms of decentralized financial applications.
Cardano aims to be the financial operating system of the world by establishing decentralized financial products similarly to Ethereum as well as providing solutions for chain interoperability, voter fraud, and legal contract tracing, among other things. As of January 2021, Cardano has a market capitalization of $9.8 billion, and one ADA trades for $0.31.
4. Polkadot (DOT)
Polkadot is a unique proof-of-stake cryptocurrency that is aimed at delivering interoperability between other blockchains. Its protocol is designed to connect permissioned and permissionless blockchains as well as oracles to allow systems to work together under one roof.
Polkadot’s core component is its relay chain that allows the interoperability of varying networks. It also allows for “parachains,” or parallel blockchains with their own native tokens for specific use cases.
Where this system differs from Ethereum is that rather than creating just decentralized applications on Polkadot, developers can create their own blockchain while also using the security that Polkadot’s chain already has. With Ethereum, developers can create new blockchains but they need to create their own security measures which can leave new and smaller projects open to attack, as the larger a blockchain the more security it has. This concept in Polkadot is known as shared security.
Polkadot was created by Gavin Wood, another member of the core founders of the Ethereum project who had differing opinions on the project’s future. As of January 2021, Polkadot has a market capitalization of $11.2 billion, and one DOT trades for $12.54.
5. Bitcoin (BCH)
Bitcoin Cash (BCH) holds an important place in the history of altcoins because it is one of the earliest and most successful hard forks of the original Bitcoin. In the cryptocurrency world, a fork takes place as the result of debates and arguments between developers and miners. Due to the decentralized nature of digital currencies, wholesale changes to the code underlying the token or coin at hand must be made due to general consensus; the mechanism for this process varies according to the particular cryptocurrency.
When different factions can’t come to an agreement, sometimes the digital currency is split, with the original chain remaining true to its original code and the new chain beginning life as a new version of the prior coin, complete with changes to its code.
BCH began its life in August of 2017 as a result of one of these splits. The debate that led to the creation of BCH had to do with the issue of scalability; the Bitcoin network has a limit on the size of blocks: one megabyte (MB). BCH increases the block size from one MB to eight MB, with the idea being that larger blocks can hold more transactions within them, and therefore the transaction speed would be increased. It also makes other changes, including the removal of the Segregated Witness protocol which impacts block space. As of January 2021, BCH had a market cap of $8.9 billion and a value per token of $513.45.