Bitcoin’s weathered hacks, heists, booms and busts to reign as the king of cryptocurrencies through its first decade. But now there’s a fresh challenge to its dominance of the fledgling market: some 2,000 smaller digital coins.
Collectively, “altcoins” are gaining ground on their bigger cousin. Individually, they are gaining traction among users, gathering communities of developers and users often deeply devoted to their goals.
Bitcoin now accounts for around 60% of the $240 billion crypto market, down from nearly 90% just over two years ago. That fading dominance reflects tough times for the original cryptocurrency since its late 2017 apex.
Bitcoin has almost doubled in value this year, rallying nearly 30% in recent days to touch its highest level in ten months on Tuesday. But last year it lost three-quarters of its value.
That volatility has put off mainstream investors from pension funds to asset managers who are seen as crucial to bitcoin’s growth from speculative token to established asset.
Bitcoin has also struggled for traction as means of payment, its intended usage. Few but cryptocurrency diehards go shopping with the digital currency.
Enter the altcoins.
Binance Coin and Bitcoin Cash, Tether, Monero and Dash: The diversity of their names reflects myriad protocols and groups of users, traders and developers behind them.
They also suffer from high volatility and few are used for mainstream payments. But playing out in their growth is a slow-burn tussle that analysts and academics describe as a race to find the answers to bitcoin’s flaws. It’s one that could shape the evolution of cryptocurrencies and related technologies like blockchain.
Money Of The Internet?
The two biggest altcoins, Ethereum and XRP, together account for about a fifth of the coin market, with respective circulations of $22 billion and $17 billion. Others, with names like AnarchistCoin and CryptoPing, are illiquid and seldom used.
“Their proliferation is driven by the need to spark new innovation – security innovations, or a new algorithm that allows faster transaction to a new blockchain,” said Paolo Tasca, who runs University College London’s Centre for Blockchain Technologies.
The emergence of a de facto “money of the internet” – a digital coin that is recognised and accepted online – is widely seen as a prerequisite for cryptocurrencies to break through into the mainstream.
Bitcoin, seen as the most likely to take that mantle, has mostly failed to live up to its billing.
Without doubt, it’s the most well-known of its kind. And to the extent they do look at cryptocurrencies, larger investors tend to gravitate towards bitcoin.
But its use in commerce is hamstrung by high transaction costs and low speed. And for all its proponents’ claims that it is “digital gold,” bitcoin’s volatility means that it is highly impractical as a store of value.
“Bitcoin was designed to be the money of the internet, but that was a very early idea,” said Hugo Volz Oliviera, an analyst at trading platform London Block Exchange. “Other projects have tried to fill the gap that exists.”