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Ethereum is a technology for building apps and organizations, holding assets, transacting and communicating without being controlled by a central authority. There is no need to hand over all your personal details to use Ethereum - you keep control of your own data and what is being shared. Ethereum has its own cryptocurrency, Ether, which is used to pay for certain activities on the Ethereum network.
What is the difference between Ethereum and Bitcoin?
Launched in 2015, Ethereum builds on Bitcoin's innovation, with some big differences.
Both let you use digital money without payment providers or banks. But Ethereum is programmable, so you can also build and deploy decentralized applications on its network.
Ethereum being programmable means that you can build apps that use the blockchain to store data or control what your app can do. This results in a general purpose blockchain that can be programmed to do anything. As there is no limit to what Ethereum can do, it allows for great innovation to happen on the Ethereum network.
While Bitcoin is only a payment network, Ethereum is more like a marketplace of financial services, games, social networks and other apps that respect your privacy and cannot censor you.
Why would I use Ethereum?
If you’ve ever sent money overseas (or plan to), or had to worry about the future of your assets due to external forces outside of your control where you live, or been fed up by the numerous restrictions and fees imposed by traditional financial institutions for everyday transactions, you might be interested in what cryptocurrencies have to offer.
Bear in mind that Ethereum is a story that is still being written, and many more reasons to use it are being uncovered as it evolves and develops over time.
What's unique about ETH?
There are many cryptocurrencies and lots of other tokens on Ethereum, but there are some things that only ETH can do.
ETH fuels and secures Ethereum
ETH is the lifeblood of Ethereum. When you send ETH or use an Ethereum application, you'll pay a fee in ETH to use the Ethereum network. This fee is an incentive for a block producer to process and verify what you're trying to do.
Validators are like the record-keepers of Ethereum—they check and prove that no one is cheating. They are randomly selected to propose a block of transactions. Validators who do this work are also rewarded with small amounts of newly-issued ETH.
The work validators do, and the capital they stake, keeps Ethereum secure and free of centralized control. ETH powers Ethereum.
When you stake your ETH, you help secure Ethereum and earn rewards. In this system, the threat of losing ETH deters attackers. More on staking
ETH underpins the Ethereum financial system
Not satisfied with payments, the Ethereum community is building a whole financial system that's peer-to-peer and accessible to everyone.
You can use ETH as collateral to generate entirely different cryptocurrency tokens on Ethereum. Plus you can borrow, lend and earn interest on ETH and other ETH-backed tokens.
Uses for ETH grow every day
Because Ethereum is programmable, developers can shape ETH in countless ways.
Back in 2015, all you could do was send ETH from one Ethereum account to another. Here are just some of things you can do today.
Stream ETH – pay someone or receive funds in real time.
Swap tokens – you can trade ETH with other tokens including Bitcoin.
Earn interest – on ETH and other Ethereum-based tokens.
Get stablecoins – access the world of cryptocurrencies with a steady, less-volatile value.
Why does ETH have value?
ETH's valuable in different ways to different people.
For users of Ethereum, ETH is valuable because it lets you pay transaction fees.
Others see it as a digital store of value because the creation of new ETH slows down over time.
More recently, ETH has become valuable to users of financial apps on Ethereum. That's because you can use ETH as collateral for crypto loans, or as a payment system.
Of course many also see it as an investment, similar to Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies.
What was The Merge?
The Merge was the joining of the original execution layer of Ethereum (the Mainnet that has existed since genesis) with its new proof-of-stake consensus layer, the Beacon Chain. It eliminated the need for energy-intensive mining and instead enabled the the network to be secured using staked ETH. It was a truly exciting step in realizing the Ethereum vision—more scalability, security, and sustainability.
Initially, the Beacon Chain shipped separately from Mainnet. Ethereum Mainnet - with all it's accounts, balances, smart contracts, and blockchain state - continued to be secured by proof-of-work, even while the Beacon Chain ran in parallel using proof-of-stake. The Merge was when these two systems finally came together, and proof-of-work was permanently replaced by proof-of-stake.
Imagine Ethereum is a spaceship that launched before it was quite ready for an interstellar voyage. With the Beacon Chain, the community built a new engine and a hardened hull. After significant testing, it became time to hot-swap the new engine for the old one mid-flight. This merged the new, more efficient engine into the existing ship enabling it to put in some serious lightyears and take on the universe.
Merging with Mainnet
Proof-of-work secured Ethereum Mainnet from genesis until The Merge. This allowed the Ethereum blockchain we're all used to to come into existence in July 2015 with all its familiar features—transactions, smart contracts, accounts, etc.
Throughout Ethereum's history, developers prepared for an eventual transition away from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake. On December 1, 2020, the Beacon Chain was created as a separate blockchain to Mainnet, running in parallel.
The Beacon Chain was not originally processing Mainnet transactions. Instead, it was reaching consensus on its own state by agreeing on active validators and their account balances. After extensive testing, it became time for the Beacon Chain to reach consensus on real world data. After The Merge, the Beacon Chain became the consensus engine for all network data, including execution layer transactions and account balances.
The Merge represented the official switch to using the Beacon Chain as the engine of block production. Mining is no longer the means of producing valid blocks. Instead, the proof-of-stake validators have adopted this role and are now responsible for processing the validity of all transactions and proposing blocks.
No history was lost in The Merge. As Mainnet merged with the Beacon Chain, it also merged the entire transactional history of Ethereum.
This transition to proof-of-stake changed the way ether is issued. Learn more about ether issuance before and after The Merge.
Ethereum is a platform that is intended to allow people to easily write decentralized applications (Đapps) using blockchain technology. A decentralized application is an application which serves some specific purpose to its users, but which has the important property that the application itself does not depend on any specific party existing. Rather than serving as a front-end for selling or providing a specific party's services, a Đapp is a tool for people and organizations on different sides of an interaction use to come together without any centralized intermediary.
Contracts generally serve four purposes:
- Maintain a data store representing something which is useful to either other contracts or to the outside world; one example of this is a contract that simulates a currency, and another is a contract that records membership in a particular organization.
- Serve as a sort of externally owned account with a more complicated access policy; this is called a "forwarding contract" and typically involves simply resending incoming messages to some desired destination only if certain conditions are met; for example, one can have a forwarding contract that waits until two out of a given three private keys have confirmed a particular message before resending it (ie. multisig). More complex forwarding contracts have different conditions based on the nature of the message sent; the simplest use case for this functionality is a withdrawal limit that is overrideable via some more complicated access procedure.
- Manage an ongoing contract or relationship between multiple users. Examples of this include a financial contract, an escrow with some particular set of mediators, or some kind of insurance. One can also have an open contract that one party leaves open for any other party to engage with at any time; one example of this is a contract that automatically pays a bounty to whoever submits a valid solution to some mathematical problem, or proves that it is providing some computational resource.
- Provide functions to other contracts; essentially serving as a software library.
Contracts interact with each other through an activity that is alternately called either "calling" or "sending messages". A "message" is an object containing some quantity of ether (a special internal currency used in Ethereum with the primary purpose of paying transaction fees), a byte-array of data of any size, the addresses of a sender and a recipient. When a contract receives a message it has the option of returning some data, which the original sender of the message can then immediately use. In this way, sending a message is exactly like calling a function.
Sandwich complexity model: the bottom level architecture of Ethereum should be as simple as possible, and the interfaces to Ethereum (including high level programming languages for developers and the user interface for users) should be as easy to understand as possible. Where complexity is inevitable, it should be pushed into the "middle layers" of the protocol, that are not part of the core consensus but are also not seen by end users - high-level-language compilers, argument serialization and deserialization scripts, storage data structure models, the leveldb storage interface and the wire protocol, etc. However, this preference is not absolute.
Freedom: users should not be restricted in what they use the Ethereum protocol for, and we should not attempt to preferentially favor or disfavor certain kinds of Ethereum contracts or transactions based on the nature of their purpose. This is similar to the guiding principle behind the concept of "net neutrality". One example of this principle not being followed is the situation in the Bitcoin transaction protocol where use of the blockchain for "off-label" purposes (eg. data storage, meta-protocols) is discouraged, and in some cases explicit quasi-protocol changes (eg. OP_RETURN restriction to 40 bytes) are made to attempt to attack applications using the blockchain in "unauthorized" ways. In Ethereum, we instead strongly favor the approach of setting up transaction fees in such a way as to be roughly incentive-compatible, such that users that use the blockchain in bloat-producing ways internalize the cost of their activities (ie. Pigovian taxation).
Generalization: protocol features and opcodes in Ethereum should embody maximally low-level concepts, so that they can be combined in arbitrary ways including ways that may not seem useful today but which may become useful later, and so that a bundle of low-level concepts can be made more efficient by stripping out some of its functionality when it is not necessary. An example of this principle being followed is our choice of a LOG opcode as a way of feeding information to (particularly light client) dapps, as opposed to simply logging all transactions and messages as was internally suggested earlier - the concept of "message" is really the agglomeration of multiple concepts, including "function call" and "event interesting to outside watchers", and it is worth separating the two.
Have No Features: as a corollary to generalization, the dev team often refuses to build in even very common high-level use cases as intrinsic parts of the protocol, with the understanding that if people really want to do it they can always create a sub-protocol (eg. ether-backed subcurrency, bitcoin/litecoin/dogecoin sidechain, etc) inside of a contract. An example of this is the lack of a Bitcoin-like "locktime" feature in Ethereum, as such a feature can be simulated via a protocol where users send "signed data packets" and those data packets can be fed into a specialized contract that processes them and performs some corresponding function if the data packet is in some contract-specific sense valid.
Non-risk-aversion: the dev team is okay with higher degrees of risk if a risk-increasing change provides very substantial benefits (eg. generalized state transitions, 50x faster block times, consensus efficiency, etc)
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