1 – Bitcoin
Created by an anonymous developer, Bitcoin came out in 2008. Whoever it was, the developer’s goal was to create a “peer to peer cash system that would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.”
What Bitcoin did differently compared to other attempts at digital cash was implement a “blockchain” system that prevented double spending. Instead of using a trusted central party to verify all transactions, Bitcoin verifies transactions through its peer to peer network.
Bitcoin is not just the original cryptocurrency that allowed almost a thousand cryptocurrencies to bloom, but also the king of all cryptocurrencies; Bitcoin currently has a market capitalization (number of coins multiplied by value of each coin) of over $57 billion, or roughly 45% of the value of the whole cryptocurrency market.
2 – Ethereum
The main promise of Ethereum is that it’s a Turing-complete “programmable blockchain” that allows developers to build all sorts of distributed apps and technologies that wouldn’t easily work on top of Bitcoin (as it stands today).
The Ethereum platform has enabled many companies to raise tens (or even hundreds) of millions of dollars in funding for their own Ethereum-based projects. This has further increased Ethereum’s value, reaching around half of Bitcoin’s market cap this year.
Ethereum has recently faced some scaling issues as the number of companies launching an “Initial Coin Offering” (ICO) has boomed. The network has been bogged down for many hours or even days at a time due to a handful of popular projects launching their own ICO to raise funds.
The developers behind the platform has promised both medium-term and long-term changes to solve this, including switching to a “Proof of Stake” (PoS) transaction verification system that’s supposed to be much more efficient than the Proof of Work (PoW) system that most cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, use.
3 – Ripple
Ripple is a payment network that enables “secure, instant and nearly free global financial transactions of any size with no chargebacks.”
Ripple is unlike most cryptocurrencies in that it doesn’t use a blockchain to establish consensus for transactions. Instead, it uses an iterative consensus process that makes it faster than the Bitcoin network, but may also leave it more exposed to attacks.
The developers of a rival network called “Stellar Lumens” that used the same consensus ledger as Ripple discovered that the system is unlikely to be safe when there is more than one node validating a transaction. However, Ripple strongly disagreed with the conclusion and claimed Stellar had incorrectly implemented the consensus mechanism and lacked some of the built-in protections that Ripple had supposedly built.
Ripple has seen some success in convincing large financial institutions, including Japan’s largest banks, to test its blockchain and perhaps even implement it in the future.
4 – Bitcoin Cash
Although it has only existed for a few weeks, Bitcoin Cash has already surged to top five in terms of market cap. That’s because Bitcoin Cash is actually a fork of Bitcoin, supported by the biggest Bitcoin mining company as well as the manufacturer of Bitcoin mining chips (ASICs) — Bitmain.
A fork happens when a group of developers decide they don’t like the direction of the current software roadmap and then take the existing code and add their own improvements to it. This creates a separate version of the previous software with its own roadmap.
Bitcoin Cash was created mainly because Bitmain didn’t like a feature called SegWit that Bitcoin recently implemented. SegWit allows for cheaper transactions (bad for miners such as Bitmain) and prefers bigger mining blocks (8MB vs 1MB for Bitcoin) as a solution to Bitcoin’s increasing scalability problem.
5 – NEM
6 – Litecoin
Litecoin was one of the very first “altcoins” to be created with the goal of being the “digital silver” to Bitcoin’s digital gold. Litecoin was also a fork of Bitcoin (as many cryptocurrencies were in the early days), but it could generate blocks four times faster and have four times the maximum number of coins (84 million).
It also uses a different mining algorithm, called “scrypt,” compared to Bitcoin, which uses SHA256. This gives Litecoin a mining decentralization advantage because people only need GPUs to mine Litecoin, as opposed to Bitcoin, where ASICs are required these days for any sort of mining reward.
More recently, the original developer of Litecoin committed to working full time on the cryptocurrency. He also set a mission for Litecoin to become a mature cryptocurrency where new innovations could be tested out before Bitcoin adopts them, too. This would make it safer for Bitcoin to adopt new technologies while also raising the importance of Litecoin on the market.
7 – IOTA
IOTA is a cryptocurrency technology that targets the Internet of Things (IoT) and doesn’t use a blockchain in order to reduce the computational needs of the network and eliminate transaction fees.
IOTA’s breakthrough ledger technology is called “Tangle,” wherein the Sender in a transaction is required to do a proof of work that approves two transactions. This removes dedicated miners who are needed to verify transactions on most other cryptocurrencies. It also makes the system more decentralized because every user essentially becomes a “node” in the network.
Another remarkable thing about IOTA is that it becomes faster the more users perform transactions, because all of those users are also required to verify other transactions. This is the opposite of most other cryptocurrencies that tend to become slower as more people use them and require new solutions to increase scalability.
8 – NEO
NEO, previously called “Antshares,” is often called the “Chinese Ethereum” because it has many of the same goals as Ethereum and is developed in China, unlike the majority of other cryptocurrencies that are developed in the U.S. or Europe. Being in China may also give it some advantages due to potentially improved relationships with both regulators and local Chinese businesses that may prefer adopting it over a Western cryptocurrency.
9 – Dash
Dash is a more private version of Bitcoin that offers faster transactions (InstantSend technology), as well as anonymous transactions (PrivateSend technology). It also has decentralized governance, which makes it the first decentralized autonomous organization.
Dash uses a two-tier architecture for its network. The first tier consists of miners who secure the network and write transactions to the blockchain, and the second tier is made of “masternodes.” Masternodes relay Dash transactions and enable the InstantSend and PrivateSend types of transactions.
Anyone can set up a masternode as long as you lock at least 1,000 DASH coins on their server. Masternodes earn money for those who operate them, which encourages people to run these masternodes and enable DASH’s advanced features.
10 – Ethereum Classic
Ethereum Classic is the original version of Ethereum; the new “Ethereum” is a fork of this original version. The split happened when a decentralized autonomous organization built on top of the original Ethereum was hacked. “The DAO,” as this organization was called, acted as a venture capital fund for future distributed applications that would be built on top of Ethereum.
One hacker took advantage of a loophole in the Ethereum code that allowed him to siphon a third of this organization’s money (around $50 million at the time). As a solution, the Ethereum developers proposed doing a “hard fork” that would be incompatible with the previous version and would be able to deny the hacker the funds that he stole.
However, not everyone switched over to the “new” Ethereum fork because they still believed in Ethereum’s original promise of standing against financial corruption and changes to the network based on a human’s whim. To them, this is what the new Ethereum became when the developers decided to essentially “bail out” the DAO and saved it from the hacker by forking the entire platform.
Therefore, those who preferred the more immutable nature of the original Ethereum decided to stick to Ethereum Classic. As such, it has remained one of the top 10 cryptocurrencies.
15 – EOS
EOS is yet another Ethereum competitor that uses a “Delegated Proof of Stake” (DPOS) system, which supposedly improves on the regular PoS system because users can delegate their voting rights to others in the network in order to decrease transaction verification times and make the network run more efficiently.
EOS also separates read and write actions to increase speed and enables public and private blockchains to communicate asynchronously. Instead of long addresses, users of the platform can also create account names, and those accounts can have different permission levels.
With EOS, you can also roll back changes to fix serious bugs if a supermajority of users agree to the changes. Presumably, this is done to avoid the same situation that created Ethereum Classic and the new Ethereum fork.