While Bitcoin is currently trading at close to its all-time high, its dominance in terms of proportion of total cryptocurrency market cap is rapidly decreasing — ground largely given up to Ethereum.
This shift is probably being driven by a few factors. Despite its recent appreciation in value, as a technology, Bitcoin has stagnated over the last three years. Two rival factions have emerged with violently opposing views on what should be done to allow the Bitcoin network to handle more transactions than it can right now. While Bitcoin has been paralysed by indecision, Ethereum has raced ahead with technology that not only does everything Bitcoin can do faster, in higher volume, and at lower cost — it does a lot more besides.
As a “hard fork” looms, which looks set to split Bitcoin into two separate currencies that will have to fight for custody of the Bitcoin moniker, anxious Bitcoin holders are increasingly divesting themselves of Bitcoin to acquire Ether — the cryptocurrency that fuels the Ethereum network.
The other side of it is that Bitcoin is really only useful as a store of value. Even then, its usefulness for actually transacting value is limited. In a world where people are used to online payments being confirmed instantly, Bitcoin transactions can take anywhere from tens of minutes to several hours, depending on how busy the network is. It’s also expensive — especially if you’re only sending small amounts. The average transaction currently costs about $1.50.
Ethereum, on the other hand, was never intended as a Bitcoin competitor. Ethereum is actually a platform for new kinds of decentralized (often financial) applications (dApps) that run on a peer-to-peer network of computers. These dApps are designed to disintermediate the kinds of relationships and transactions for which we have traditionally required things like banks, public registries, and the legal system.
For technologists, this is exciting stuff, and a vibrant community of software developers has enthusiastically embraced it. Hundreds of projects, startups, and companies at every scale — including the likes of Intel, Microsoft, and Samsung — are building software using Ethereum. And everyone who wants to use any of these dApps on the public Ethereum blockchain will need to pay a small fee in Ether each time they do so.
The utility of many of these dApps are based on network effects, so Ethereum as the underlying protocol is a network upon which other networks are being built. It is therefore a group-forming network — a much faster growing and more resilient kind of network effect than Bitcoin enjoys. In group-forming networks, even if the utility of individual groups is low, the network effect of all being part of the same underlying network can dominate the overall economics of the system. In other words, the value of the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. That’s particularly interesting in the case of Ethereum as that value is captured within the Ether price.
Platforms requiring network effects are however, famously hard to bootstrap — but here Ethereum has an ace up its sleeve. Token sales, or Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), allow Ethereum projects to sell their own native token to the crowd. A token is a cryptocurrency that has special purpose within the dApp to which it corresponds. The purpose and value of these tokens varies, but what they all share in common is that their sale not only provides funding for the dApp’s development, it also catalyses the creation of a community around the dApp that is financially incentivized to see it succeed. The more successful a dApp becomes, the greater the demand for, and therefore value of, the token required to use it.
TL;DR: Bitcoin’s dominance is slipping because its utility is limited and weakening versus other more recently developed, less politicized cryptocurrencies. Financial markets don’t like uncertainty, and Bitcoin is gearing up for a messy divorce. Ethereum was never intended as a competitor to Bitcoin, it’s something very different. But the value of Ether is underpinned by utility within the kind of group-forming network that tends to grow rapidly when it picks up steam. That’s why its value is increasing faster than Bitcoin, and why many pundits are predicting it will continue to do so long after Bitcoin’s market cap has been exceeded.
Jack du Rose is a cofounder of Colony, an Ethereum-based operating system for open organizations.