As Bitcoin Soars in Value, Alternative Cryptocurrencies …

Currencies designed to fix perceived flaws in Bitcoin could lead to competition that makes the idea of digital cryptocurrency stick.

In recent weeks, the digital currency Bitcoin has soared and then dipped in value, along the way attracting more public attention than ever before and speculation as to whether it could become an established and widely accepted way to pay for goods and services.

But Bitcoin isnt the only cryptocurrency out there. Several others are also surging in popularity and value, and they claim to offer technical improvements that make them better suited to mainstream use.

Some of these competing currencies already represent significant stores of value. The value of a single bitcoin on the most popular exchange was $93.70 at time of publication, and the total value of all bitcoins in circulation just over $1 billion (it was over $2 billion at the markets high point last week). The largest alternative cryptocurrency, litecoins, were worth $2.31 each and $38 million in total; the next largest, PPCoin, were worth $0.22 each adding up to a total value of $4 million.

Bitcoin is based on mathematical techniques that control the production of new bitcoins, make it possible for a person to verify money sent to them is genuine, rule out counterfeiting, and limit the maximum number that can ever exist (to 21 million) (see What Bitcoin Is, and Why It Matters).

The Bitcoin alternatives are inspired by that design, which is published openly, and try to offer improvements.

One of Litecoins most significant claimed improvements over Bitcoin is that it allows transactions to be confirmed as legitimate much more quickly, says Charles Lee, who designed the currency, which is now maintained by him and a small group of other enthusiasts.

Bitcoin transactions are verified by the work of software run by other people using the currency, a process that takes on average 10 minutes and can be much longer, an hour in the case of many exchange sites. Lee says that hinders operators of online stores from using the currency. With Bitcoin, sometimes merchants are forced to accept unconfirmed transactions because confirmations are way too slow, he says. Faster confirmations lead to a more useful currency. Litecoin transactions are confirmed on average every 2.5 minutes, which Litecoins developers say is more practical for businesses.

Both Litecoin and the third most-popular cryptocurrency, PPCoin, also generate new coins in a way intended to be more practical than Bitcoins design. New bitcoins are created through a process known as mining, in which people run software that competes to solve a computational puzzle. Each time a puzzle is cracked, new coins are awarded and a new challenge is set. In a neat twist, the process of solving a puzzle also confirms the validity of recent transactions made with bitcoins.

However, because more powerful computers are more likely to solve these puzzles, an arms race between bitcoin miners has resulted. Today only those with very powerful, customized machines have a chance of profitably mining bitcoins and miners are still racing to build ever more powerful mining rigs.

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As Bitcoin Soars in Value, Alternative Cryptocurrencies ...

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