The purpose of this page is to provide a general overview of the Bitcoin system and economy.
Alice is far away from Bob and wants to buy his Alpaca socks. In return, she wants to send him a dollar. A dollar bill is a piece of paper which is very easy to create (by those who can), but which is accepted by people in exchange for valuable products and services in the real world, such as the socks Alice wants to buy. One simple thing Alice can do is put a dollar bill in an envelope, mail it to Bob, and then wait for Bob to send the socks to her.
Another thing Alice can do is to "wire" the money to Bob. She can do that by first giving her dollar bills to an institution called a bank, the job of which is to safe-keep Alice's dollar bills and, in return, to give Alice a written promise (called a "bank statement") that, whenever she wishes, she can come to the bank to take back the same number of dollar bills that she deposited. Since the money is still Alice's, she is entitled to do with it whatever she pleases, and the bank (like most banks), for a small fee, will do Alice the service of "giving" the dollar bills to Bob instead of her. This could be done by sending a person to Bob's door, with Alice's dollar bills in hand but usually it is done by Alice's bank by giving the dollar bills to Bob's bank and informing them that the money is for Bob, who will then see the amount in his next statement, or, if he is in a hurry, the next time he contacts his bank asking about how much money they have for him.
Since banks have many customers, and bank employees require money for doing the job of talking to people and signing documents, banks in recent times have been using machines such as ATMs and web servers that do the job of interacting with customers instead of paid bank employees. The job of these machines is to learn what each customer wants to do with his money and, to the extent that it is possible, act on what the customer wants (for example, ATMs can hand cash). The people can always know how much money they have in their accounts, and they are confident that the numbers they see in their bank statements and on their computer screens accurately reflect the number of dollars that they can get from the bank on demand. They can be so sure of this that they can accept those numbers in the same way they accept paper dollars (this is similar to the way people started accepting paper dollars when they had been accepting gold or silver).
Such a system has several disadvantages:
- It is costly. EFTs in Europe can cost 25 euros. Credit transactions can cost several percent of the transaction.
- It is slow. Checking services take days to complete.
- In most cases, it cannot be anonymous.
- Accounts can be frozen.
- Banks and other payment processors like PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard can and sometimes do refuse to process payments for legal entities.
Bitcoin is a system of owning and voluntarily transferring amounts of so-called bitcoins, in a manner similar to an on-line banking interface, but anonymously and without reliance on a central authority to maintain account balances. These bitcoins are valuable because they are useful and limited in supply.
Creation of coins
The creation of coins must be limited for the currency to have any value.
New coins are slowly mined into existence by following a mutually agreed-upon set of rules. A user mining bitcoins is running a program that searches tirelessly for a solution to a very difficult math problem whose difficulty is precisely known. The difficulty is automatically adjusted regularly so that the number of solutions found globally, by everyone, is constant: an average of 6 per hour. When a solution is found, the user may tell everyone of the existence of this newly found solution, along with other information, packaged together in what is called a "block".
Blocks contain 50 bitcoins at present. This amount is an incentive for people to perform the computation work required for block generation. Roughly every 4 years, the number of bitcoins that can be "mined" in a block reduces by 50%. Any blocks that are created by a malicious user that do not follow this rule (or any other rules) will be rejected by everyone else. The result is that no more than 21 million bitcoins will ever exist.
Because the mining incentive to put forth the computational power to create blocks will eventually diminish, miners will some day instead pay for their hardware and electricity costs by collecting transaction fees. The sender of money may voluntarily pay a small transaction fee which will be kept by whoever finds the next block. Paying this fee will encourage the miner to include the transaction in a block more quickly.
Transferring a coin
To guarantee that an eavesdropper, Eve, cannot access other people's bitcoins by creating transactions in their names we use a public key system to make digital signatures. In this system, each person, such as Alice or Bob, has a pair of public and private keys which he/she stores in a safe wallet. Only the user with his secret private key can sign a document, such as the transaction to give some of his bitcoins to somebody else, but any one can validate the signature using the user’s public key.
Suppose Alice wants to send a bitcoin to Bob.
- Bob sends his public key to Alice.
- Alice adds Bob’s public key along with the amount she wants to transfer to a message: a 'transaction' message.
- Alice signs the transaction with her secret private key.
- Alice broadcasts the transaction out over the bitcoin network for all to see.
(Only the first step is actually completed by a human. The rest is done by the bitcoin client software.)
As a result, anyone who knows the public keys of both Alice and Bob can now see that Alice agreed to transfer the amount to Bob, because nobody other than Alice has Alice's private key. Alice would be foolish to give her private key to other people, as this would allow them to sign transactions in her name, removing funds from her control.
Later on, when Bob wishes to transfer the same bitcoin to Charley, he will do the same thing:
- Charlie sends Bob his public key.
- Bob adds Charlie's public key along with the amount he wants to transfer to a message: a 'transaction' message.
- Bob signs the transaction with his private key.
- Bob broadcasts the transaction out over the bitcoin network for all to see.
Only Bob can do this because only Bob has the private key that corresponds to the public key Alice included in the previous transaction.
Eve cannot change who the coins belong to by replacing Bob’s public key with her public key, because Alice signed the transfer to Bob using her private key, declaring that the coins which belonged to her now belong to Bob, and Alice's private key is kept secret from Eve. So if Charley accepts that the original coin was in the hands of Alice he will also accept the fact that this coin was later passed to Bob and now Bob is passing this same coin to him.
The process described above does not prevent Alice from using a coin in more than one transaction. The following process does. This is the primary innovation behind Bitcoin.
- Details about the transaction are sent and forwarded to all or as many other computers as possible.
- A constantly growing chain of blocks that contains a record of all transactions is collectively maintained by all computers (each has a full copy).
- To be accepted in the chain, transaction blocks must be valid and must include proof of work (one block generated by the network every 10 minutes).
- Blocks are chained in a way so that, if any one is modified, all following blocks will have to be recomputed.
- When multiple valid continuations to this chain appear, only the longest such branch is accepted and it is then extended further.
When Bob sees that his transaction has been included in a block, which has been made part of the single longest and fastest-growing block chain (extended with significant computational effort), he can be confident that the transaction by Alice has been accepted by the computers in the network and is permanently recorded, preventing Alice from creating a second transaction with the same coin. In order for Alice to thwart this system and double-spend her coins, she would need to muster more computing power than all other bitcoin users combined.
There are no bitcoin "accounts" to set up, no e-mail addresses and no user-names and passwords to give, just for owning bitcoins. Each balance is simply associated with a randomly generated public-private key pair, and the money "belongs" to whoever has the private key and can sign transactions with it. Moreover, those keys do not have to be registered anywhere in advance, as they are only actually used if and when there is a transaction involving them. Transacting parties do not need to know each other's identity in the same way that a store owner does not know Bob's name is Bob when Bob goes and buys groceries with cash.
A Bitcoin address mathematically corresponds to a public key and looks like this:
Each person can have many such addresses, each with its own balance, which makes it very difficult to know which person owns what amount. In order to protect his privacy, Bob can even generate a new public-private key pair for each individual transaction. The Bitcoin software encourages this behavior by default. Continuing the example from above, when Charlie receives the bitcoin from Bob, Charlie will not be able to identify who owned the coin before Bob (not without asking Bob).
You have completed reading our Bitcoin introduction!
Where to see and explore
You can directly explore the system in action by visiting Blockchain.info or Bitcoin Block Explorer. The site shows you the latest blocks in the block chain. The block chain contains the agreed history of all transactions that took place in the system. Note how many blocks were generated in the last hour, which on average will be 6. Also notice the number of transactions and the total amount transferred in the last hour (last time I checked it was about 64 and 15K). This should give you an indication of how active the system is.
Next, navigate to one of these blocks. The block's hash begins with a run of zeros. This is what made creating the block so difficult; a hash that begins with many zeros is much more difficult to find than a hash with few or no zeros. The computer that generated this block had to try many Nonce values (also listed on the block's page) until it found one that generated this run of zeros. Next, see the line titled Previous block. Each block contains the hash of the block that came before it. This is what forms the chain of blocks. Now take a look at all the transactions the block contains. The first transaction is the income earned by the computer that generated this block. It includes a fixed amount of coins created out of "thin air" and possibly a fee collected from other transactions in the same block.
Drill down into any of the transactions and you will see how it is made up of one or more amounts coming in and out. Having more than one incoming and outgoing amount in a transaction enables the system to join and break amounts in any possible way, allowing for any fractional amount needed. Each incoming amount is a past transaction (which you can also view) from someone's address, and each outgoing amount is addressed to someone and will be part of a future transaction (which you can also navigate down into if it has already taken place.)
Finally you can follow any of the addresses links and see what public information is available for them.
To get an impression of the amount of activity on the Bitcoin network, you might like to visit the monitoring websites Bitcoin Monitor and Bitcoin Watch. The first shows a real-time visualization of events on the Bitcoin network, and the second lists general statistics on the amount and size of recent transactions.
How many people use Bitcoin?
This is quite a difficult question to answer accurately. The best estimation is to count how many bitcoin clients connected to the network in the last 24 hours. We can do this as the clients transmit their addresses to the other members of the network periodically. The estimate as of September 2011 is about 60,000 users. To get a more current estimate see Bitcoin Network Status Charts
- What is Bitcoin? video introduction
- Installing Bitcoin getting started
- How bitcoin works
- Using Bitcoin
- A gentle introduction to Bitcoin - BitcoinMe
- Bitcoin Primer from CoinLab
- Another introduction, The Rebooting Of Money podcast is found at Bitcoin Money
- A beginner's step-by-step guide to using Bitcoin, use of alternative wallets, and generally keeping your money and computer secure - BitcoinIntro.com