What is cryptocurrency and altcoin?
Before we take a closer look at some of these alternatives to bitcoin, let’s step back and briefly examine what we mean by terms like cryptocurrency and altcoin. A cryptocurrency, broadly defined, is virtual or digital money which takes the form of tokens or “coins.” While some cryptocurrencies have ventured into the physical world with credit cards or other projects, the large majority remain entirely intangible. The “crypto” in cryptocurrencies refers to complicated cryptography which allows for a particular digital token to be generated, stored, and transacted securely and, typically, anonymously. Alongside this important “crypto” feature of these currencies is a common commitment to decentralization; cryptocurrencies are typically developed as code by teams who build in mechanisms for issuance (often, although not always, through a process called “mining”) and other controls. Cryptocurrencies are almost always designed to be free from government manipulation and control, although as they have grown more popular this foundational aspect of the industry has come under fire. The currencies modeled after bitcoin are collectively called altcoins and have tried to present themselves as modified or improved versions of bitcoin. While some of these currencies are easier to mine than bitcoin is, there are tradeoffs, including greater risk brought on by lesser liquidity, acceptance and value retention. (For more, see our guides on bitcoin mining and bitcoin regulation.)
Below, we’ll examine some of the most important digital currencies other than bitcoin. First, though, a caveat: it is impossible for a list like this to be entirely comprehensive. One reason for this is the fact that there are more than 1,600 cryptocurrencies in existence as of this writing, and many of those tokens and coins enjoy immense popularity among a dedicated (if small, in some cases) community of backers and investors. Beyond that, the field of cryptocurrencies is always expanding, and the next great digital token may be released tomorrow, for all anyone in the crypto community knows. While bitcoin is widely seen as a pioneer in the world of cryptocurrencies, analysts adopt many approaches for evaluating tokens other than BTC. It’s common, for instance, for analysts to attribute a great deal of importance to the ranking of coins relative to one another in terms of market cap. We’ve factored this into our consideration, but there are other reasons why a digital token may be included in the list as well.
1) Litecoin (LTC)
Litecoin, launched in 2011, was among the initial cryptocurrencies following bitcoin and has often been referred to as “silver to bitcoin’s gold.” It was created by Charlie Lee, an MIT graduate and former Google engineer. Litecoin is based on an open source global payment network that is not controlled by any central authority and uses "scrypt" as a proof of work, which can be decoded with the help of CPUs of consumer grade. Although Litecoin is like bitcoin in many ways, it has a faster block generation rate and hence offers a faster transaction confirmation. Other than developers, there are a growing number of merchants who accept Litecoin. As of October 5, 2018, Litecoin had a market cap of $3.40 billion and a per token value of $58.09.
2) Ethereum (ETH)
Launched in 2015, Ethereum is a decentralized software platform that enables Smart Contracts and Distributed Applications (DApps) to be built and run without any downtime, fraud, control or interference from a third party. The applications on ethereum are run on its platform-specific cryptographic token, ether. Ether is like a vehicle for moving around on the ethereum platform, and is sought by mostly developers looking to develop and run applications inside ethereum, or now by investors looking to make purchases of other digital currencies using ether. During 2014, ethereum launched a pre-sale for ether which received an overwhelming response; this helped to usher in the age of the initial coin offering (ICO). According to ethereum, it can be used to “codify, decentralize, secure and trade just about anything.” Following the attack on the DAO in 2016, Ethereum was split into Ethereum (ETH) and Ethereum Classic (ETC). As of October 5, 2018, Ethereum (ETH) had a market cap of $22.97 billion and a per token value of $224.42.
3) Zcash (ZEC)
Zcash, a decentralized and open-source cryptocurrency launched in the latter part of 2016, looks promising. “If bitcoin is like http for money, zcash is https," is one analogy zcash uses to define itself. Zcash offers privacy and selective transparency of transactions. Thus, like https, zcash claims to provide extra security or privacy where all transactions are recorded and published on a blockchain, but details such as the sender, recipient, and amount remain private. Zcash offers its users the choice of “shielded” transactions, which allow for content to be encrypted using advanced cryptographic technique or zero-knowledge proof construction called a zk-SNARK developed by its team. As of October 5, 2018, Zcash had a market cap of $633.64 million and a value per token of $128.08.
4) Dash (DASH)
Dash (originally known as darkcoin) is a more secretive version of bitcoin. Dash offers more anonymity as it works on a decentralized mastercode network that makes transactions almost untraceable. Launched in January 2014, dash experienced an increasing fan following in a short span of time. This cryptocurrency was created and developed by Evan Duffield and can be mined using a CPU or GPU. In March 2015, ‘Darkcoin’ was rebranded to dash, which stands for “digital cash” and operates under the ticker DASH. The rebranding didn't change the functionality of any of its technological features including DarkSend and InstantX. As of October 5, 2018, Dash had a market cap of $1.51 billion and a per token value of $181.42.
5) Ripple (XRP)
Ripple is a real-time global settlement network that offers instant, certain and low-cost international payments. Launched in 2012, ripple “enables banks to settle cross-border payments in real time, with end-to-end transparency, and at lower costs.” Ripple’s consensus ledger (its method of conformation) is unique in that it doesn’t require mining. In this way, ripple sets itself apart from bitcoin and many other altcoins. Since Ripple’s structure doesn't require mining, it reduces the usage of computing power, and minimizes network latency. Ripple believes that “distributing value is a powerful way to incentivize certain behaviors” and thus currently plans to distribute XRP primarily “through business development deals, incentives to liquidity providers who offer tighter spreads for payments, and selling XRP to institutional buyers interested in investing in XRP.” So far, ripple has seen success with this model; it remains one of the most enticing digital currencies among traditional financial institutions looking for ways to revolutionize cross-border payments. As of October 5, 2018, ripple had a market cap of $20.07 billion and a per token value of $0.518.
6) Monero (XMR)
Monero is a secure, private and untraceable currency. This open-source cryptocurrency was launched in April 2014 and soon spiked great interest among the cryptography community and enthusiasts. The development of this cryptocurrency is completely donation-based and community-driven. Monero has been launched with a strong focus on decentralization and scalability, and it enables complete privacy by using a special technique called “ring signatures.” With this technique, there appears a group of cryptographic signatures including at least one real participant, but since they all appear valid, the real one cannot be isolated. Because of exceptional security mechanisms like this, monero has developed something of an unsavory reputation; it has been linked to criminal operations around the world. Nonetheless, whether it is used for good or ill, there’s no denying that monero has introduced important technological advances to the cryptocurrency space. As of July 19, 2018, Monero had a market cap of $2.31 billion and a per token value of $142.21.
7) Bitcoin Cash (BCH)
Bitcoin Cash holds an important place in the history of altcoins because it is one of the earliest and most successful hard forks of the original bitcoin. In the cryptocurrency world, a fork takes place as the result of debates and arguments between developers and miners. Due to the decentralized nature of digital currencies, wholesale changes to the code underlying the token or coin at hand must be made due to general consensus; the mechanism for this process varies according to the particular cryptocurrency. When different factions can’t come to an agreement, sometimes the digital currency is split, with the original remaining true to its original code and the other copy beginning life as a new version of the prior coin, complete with changes to its code. Bitcoin cash began its life in August of 2017 as a result of one of these splits. The debate which led to the creation of BCH had to do with the issue of scalability; bitcoin has a strict limit on the size of blocks, 1 megabyte. BCH increases the block size from 1 MB to 8 MB, with the idea being that larger blocks will allow for faster transaction times. It also makes other changes, too, including the removal of the Segregated Witness protocol which impacts block space. As of October 5, 2018, BCH had a market cap of $1.88 billion and a value per token of $114.30.
8) NEO (NEO)
NEO began life in 2014. Originally called AntShares, the coin was later rebranded by creator Da Hongfei. To date, it is the largest cryptocurrency which has emerged from China and is sometimes referred to a “Chinese Ethereum” because of its similar use of smart contracts. In 2017, NEO experienced its most successful year to date. From a value of $0.16 per token in January of 2017, NEO climbed to about $162 per token by one year later. This constitutes a return of more than 111,000%. One key to NEO’s success has been its support of programming in many existing languages, including Go, Java, C++, and others. Further, NEO has experienced benefits as a result of its positive relationship with the Chinese government, which is generally known for its harsh positions on cryptocurrencies. As of October 5, 2018, NEO had a market cap of $1.17 billion and a value per token of $18.03.
9) Cardano (ADA)
Charles Hoskinson, one of the co-founders of ethereum, launched cardano in September of 2017. For supporters of this digital currency, ADA offers all of the benefits of ethereum, as well as many others. Cardano offers a platform for Dapps and smart contracts, like ethereum before it. Beyond that, ADA aims to solve some of the most pressing problems plaguing cryptocurrencies everywhere, including interoperability and scalability. Cardano also hopes to tackle issues related to international payments, which are typically both timely and expensive. Thanks to its focus on this area, ADA was able to take international payment processing times from days down to just seconds. As of October 5, 2018, cardano had a market cap of $2.12 billion and a per token value of $0.081.
10) EOS (EOS)
One of the newest digital currencies to make our list is EOS. Launched in June of 2017, EOS was created by cryptocurrency pioneer Dan Larimer. Before his work on EOS, Larimer founded the digital currency exchange Bitshares as well as the blockchain-based social media platform Steemit. Like other cryptocurrencies on this list, EOS is designed after ethereum, so it offers a platform on which developers can build decentralized applications. EOS is notable for many other reasons, though. First, its initial coin offering was one of the longest and most profitable in history, raking in a record $4 billion or so in investor funds through crowdsourcing efforts lasting a year. EOS offers a delegated proof-of-stake mechanism which it hopes to be able to offer scalability beyond its competitors. EOS consists of EOS.IO, similar to the operating system of a computer and acting as the blockchain network for the digital currency, as well as EOS coins. EOS is also revolutionary because of its lack of a mining mechanism to produce coins. Instead, block producers generate blocks and are rewarded in EOS tokens based on their production rates. EOS includes a complex system of rules to govern this process, with the idea being that the network will ultimately be more democratic and decentralized than those of other cryptocurrencies. As of October 5, 2018, EOS had a market cap of $5.21 billion and a per token value of $5.75.
The Bottom Line
Bitcoin continues to lead the pack of cryptocurrencies, in terms of market capitalization, user base and popularity. Nevertheless, virtual currencies such as ethereum and ripple, which are being used more for enterprise solutions, are becoming popular, while some altcoins are being endorsed for superior or advanced features vis-à-vis bitcoins. Going by the current trend, cryptocurrencies are here to stay but how many of them will emerge as leaders amid the growing competition within the space will only be revealed with time.