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Former E*TRADE Executive talks crypto trading, new role at Voyager Digital and blockchain predictions for 2020
Stephen Ehrlich is a veteran in the capital markets space. He has worked in the industry for more than 25 years, starting out his career at TIR Securities, an institutional brokerage that was sold to E*TRADE Financial.
Ehrlich was asked to join E*TRADE Financial and spent seven years at the company, ultimately rising to the CEO position. Later, from experience gleamed running E*TRADE, he launched his own firm called Lightspeed Financial in 2006. By 2009 Lightspeed Financial was doing 450,000 trades per day and became the third-largest brokerage in the United States.
Ehrlich eventually left Lightspeed International in 2020, taking a step back from capital markets. It was during this downtime that he met his current co-founders of Voyager Digital, founded in 2020. Voyager Digital is a licensed crypto-asset broker that provides investors with a turnkey solution to trade crypto-assets, that offers zero-commission trading.
In the interview, we discuss Ehrlich’s previous role at E*TRADE, his new role at Voyager Digital, his crypto predictions for 2020 and much more.
What is your professional background and how/when did you get into crypto?
Steve Erlich (SE): I’ve been in capital markets for over 25 years. Early in my career, I worked at TIR Securities, Inc., one of only three global soft dollar brokers when the Soft Dollar Brokerage industry emerged. At Lightspeed Financial, I led the first Broker-Dealer solely focused on active traders and automated trading. As CEO of Tradier, I led an API brokerage before any broker-dealers were utilizing that technology. I’ve been fortunate enough to be at the forefront of many financial revolutions, including as CEO of online trading at E*Trade.
I was introduced to crypto in early 2020 and I quickly realized I needed to be a part of the industry. I saw that in the crypto market, there were similar issues as the early days in the stocks and equities markets like price discrepancies and market inefficiencies. I knew traders deserved a better product and starting Voyager seemed like the obvious next step for me
Tell us about why you decided to start Voyager Digital?
SE: My co-founders and I sat down in 2020 and looked at the competitors in the crypto market. We knew we could build something smarter and more intuitive for customers.
We thought crypto investors deserved the same experience and service that they were accustomed to in the traditional markets, all while honoring crypto’s unique value propositions. We’re proud to say we delivered that with the launch of Voyager.
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Where is your team located and why did you choose that jurisdiction?
SE: We’re based in New York with offices in New Jersey and California. We chose New York because it’s the greatest city on earth, its access to top tech and finance talent, and the other locations are based upon important regulatory infrastructure.
What are some of Voyager Digital’s notable achievements or milestones?
SE: It’s been an adventurous 2020 for Voyager! We launched our iOS application in February to a waitlist of over 100k users. Getting our hero product out the gate and in the hands of customers was a major accomplishment, but we’re also extremely proud of taking the company public in Canada and our acquisition of Ethos. Read more below:
- Going Public (VYGR.CN) – Earlier this year, we took our company public, a major milestone in building a trusted crypto solution. Holding ourselves accountable to the regulators of the public markets in Canada (VYGR.CN) ensures we maintain a standard of excellence. As a publicly-traded company, we operate with the transparency we believe the crypto market deserves.
- Voyager & Ethos – Recently, we completed our acquisition of Ethos, a leading Universal Wallet & Blockchain Technology provider. Ethos’ technology bridges multiple blockchain protocols and financial institutions and systems. This union expedites Voyager’s ability to support more coins for trading and blockchain transfers. Additionally, the newly branded Voyager Token (formerly known as the Ethos token) will serve a variety of functions within the Voyager trading ecosystem, particularly in our plans to integrate self-custody into the app.
In your time as CEO of E*trade Professional Trading, what did you learn that you can apply to Voyager Digital?
SE: At E*Trade, I became part of a team tasked with creating a state-of-the-art product that convinced the world to not only trust us with their investments but to trust online trading as a whole. It was a tough sell but with a lot of hard work and some blind trust from early adopters, E*Trade and our competitors were able to obtain customers, assured them that online trading was the future, and a better future at that. Not only did existing customers convert but millions of new investors entered the market for the first time. The birth of online trading in the 1990s caused the percent of individuals trading stocks to increase to 20% from just 5% during the previous decade.
In my opinion, crypto will get even more people around the globe trading and investing. Crypto is a 24-hour market, in which trading and funds are always accessible, and it’s also global and borderless. The same pillars that helped online trading grow, such as transparency, excellent customer service, and accessibility, will also push the crypto market forward. We see a huge opportunity for growth and expansion in this exciting marketplace.
What are the benefits of using Voyager Digital as opposed to other crypto trading platforms?
SE: First and foremost, Voyager is the simplest and fastest place to buy and trade crypto. We’re not an exchange, we’re a broker, so we take a customer-centric approach, and we believe that using and trading crypto should be an easy and seamless experience.
Other trading platforms can be really confusing and complex, getting started requires buying crypto on one platform, transferring to an exchange, with multiple KYC requirements; you can do all of that on Voyager in under 5-minutes.
We also offer interest on Bitcoin and our own native token, The Voyager Token; we will be expanding this offering to other assets in the future. At Voyager, you get the benefits of multiple service providers all in one easy-to-use app.
What can you tell us about the Voyager Digital product roadmap? What upcoming features are you most excited about rolling out?
SE: Next year, we’re looking to expand internationally which is a huge step for us in bringing crypto to the masses. We’re also planning on adding new assets and blockchain transfers, debit cards, and more. Many exciting new developments on the horizon!
What are the biggest challenges of building a crypto trading platform for crypto users?
SE: The crypto market is so new and because of that, it’s sort of the wild west. There is very little regulatory guidance and there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the technology. For us, a lot of work went into making sure we were following the existing regulation and preparing for a more regulated future.
There’s also a major liquidity issue in the market. We knew from day one that we wanted to be aggressive in the assets that we offered. It was difficult to find reputable custody partners that supported a wide range of crypto assets. By building a Smart Order Router that connected to multiple exchanges and partnering with elite partners, we’ve been able to create a custody and liquidity network unlike any other in the market.
The other challenge is building trust in the crypto market. Many people have been victims of misinformation and shady exchange platforms. We’re trying to teach people the value of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology and get them comfortable investing with a licensed and secure platform like ours.
What other projects and/or blockchain developments are you most excited about?
SE: We’re big fans of Celsius and RoundlyX, both of which are partners of ours. Celsius’ mission is very much aligned with ours; they believe it’s time to replace the current financial systems with a new model that acts in the best interest of its customers. They offer interest, lending, and loans in crypto.
RoundlyX lets you invest your spare change in crypto and make recurring purchases. You can connect your Voyager account, so all of your spare change is deposited into Voyager in the asset of your choice.
We’re also excited about a few of our traditional equities clients that are now offering crypto to their clients like Market Rebellion, Tiger Trading, Sterling Tech, and Avant Garde Trading. For each of them, their customers we’re asking for access to crypto and they used our technology to make it happen. Nothing makes us happier than giving people new to the market a secure and seamless access point to crypto.
Do you have any blockchain and/or crypto predictions for 2020 and beyond?
SE: We believe that the financial industry is in a transformational phase. Payments, trading, custody, and clearing are all changing because of crypto. Some changes will take place in the short term, but the bigger disruption will probably take more time. We want to be at the forefront – educating consumers and regulators, developing solutions, and leading the way towards a more democratized financial future. Long term, the possibilities of blockchain technology and crypto are endless. We are confident that equities will take form as digital assets, crypto will be used at your corner store, and many companies will look more like decentralized networks. In the meanwhile, the industry has a lot of work to do!
What are the biggest obstacles for the mainstream adoption of crypto?
SE: Firstly, it is the ease of use. If it’s not easy, people just won’t use it. That’s the big problem we’re here to solve. Our goal is to make crypto so easy your grandmother could use it.
Secondly, as I mentioned previously, there’s a major trust issue and learning curve when it comes to crypto. Lots of people have been victims of misinformation and shady exchange platforms. We’re trying to build that trust by adhering to regulations, obtaining the proper licenses, going public on the Canadian Securities Exchange (CSE), and educating people on the value of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology.
What is your most controversial opinion relating to blockchain and/or cryptocurrency?
SE: Great question. I’d say that there is a lot of infrastructure development work needed in crypto and blockchain before it goes mainstream. Everyone wants the price to go up, but the long-term viability of this industry is dependent on blockchain platforms and protocols being developed and tested and made scalable and efficient.
Crypto has to deliver a competitive advantage to the world, giving people and companies a reason to use it over traditional fiat or funding alternatives. This is happening, but it needs time, and we’re well-positioned as a leader in this initiative.
Crypto Trading, Explained
This guide explores the basics of crypto trading, the rookie errors to avoid, and offers tips on the best places to store assets.
What is crypto trading?
This type of trading involves exchanging one cryptocurrency for another, buying and selling coins, and exchanging fiat money into crypto.
It bears some similarities to foreign exchange (forex), where fiat currencies from across the globe are traded 24 hours a day.
The number of cryptocurrencies has exploded in recent years – and estimates suggest there are now more than 1,500 in existence.
Many of these coins can only be acquired using a major cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin or Ethereum. Because of this, you’ll likely need to perform trades if you want to contribute to initial coin offerings (ICOs,) or use a blockchain company’s services.
One upside of crypto trading is that you can get involved without mining coins yourself – a process that takes time, energy, technical knowhow and a lot of computing power.
OK! So how do I buy crypto?
You’ll usually go through something known as a crypto exchange.
Crypto exchanges generally fall into two categories: centralized and decentralized.
As well as buying crypto using fiat currency, a centralized exchange is somewhere you can store funds and exchange the likes of Bitcoin for other coins and tokens. Examples include Coinbase, Kraken and Binance. Although there is less risk that your funds will disappear if you forget a password or your private key, it’s important to go with reputable providers who have high security standards. That’s because there have been cases where millions of dollars have disappeared from these exchanges overnight through hacking.
On the other side of the coin, decentralized exchanges (DEX) remove the middleman – meaning trading is automated and peer to peer. They include Waves, Bitsquare, Bitshares, and CounterParty. Unlike their centralized counterparts, there is more of an emphasis on privacy here, allowing you to take further steps to protect your identity. The “trustless environment” on these platforms is driven by smart contracts. Although you retain 100 percent control of your cash through your own personal wallet, losing your private keys could make your funds irretrievable.
So where is the best place to store my crypto, then?
This depends on what your priorities are.
So-called “hot wallets” make accessing your crypto easy – allowing you to transfer funds and complete trades quickly and with ease. Many providers now offer mobile apps so this can be done on the move. Meanwhile, “cold wallets” are stored offline – commonly on USB sticks – with some people even writing down their private keys on paper. The latter can work well if you’re looking to save crypto for a rainy day.
Another thing to think about is what you want to store in your crypto wallet. If you’re interested in trading, the odds are that you’ll own multiple cryptocurrencies at once. Some wallets are only designed to support one coin, while others support dozens.
What should I look for when buying coins?
With hundreds to choose from, each with a different value and purpose, it’s worth doing your research.
Only a few cryptocurrencies – such as Bitcoin and Ethereum – have achieved mainstream levels of popularity. However, even well-established currencies can fall victim to extreme price volatility. It can be difficult to predict how prices will fluctuate with newly minted coins because there is little historical information to analyze. Backing a new currency could prove extremely lucrative, but equally, there’s a chance you’ll make an expensive mistake if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Keeping up to speed with the news on Cointelegraph, seeking independent ratings on ICOs, and gathering as much information as you can on a coin’s background are essential steps before you decide to make an investment. After making a purchase, monitor any changes in price closely – and consider setting higher and upper limits on when you would want to sell your crypto, mitigating losses in the event of a crash and protecting profits after a surge.
Any beginner’s mistakes I should avoid?
Try to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket.
Just like traditional investing, it’s worth having a diverse portfolio and spreading risk. That way, if one cryptocurrency performs disastrously, it won’t have a catastrophic effect on the overall value of your assets.
Another tip is to try and determine why the value of a particular cryptocurrency is rising or falling before you make an investment. Buying a coin that’s in freefall and waiting for its value to increase again may seem astute, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll bounce back. Chasing gains by backing a currency that’s surged can also seem tempting, but there’s always the risk of “pump and dump” schemes where the price crashes afterwards. Know the “why” before you buy.
Finally, always check, double check and triple check while trading – a simple tip that even seasoned crypto holders forget. When setting up buy or sell orders, make sure your numbers add up, as even the smallest of typos can see you lose an eye-watering amount. Also, when dealing with an exchange, make sure you’re sending coins to the correct address.
Is there a way to learn crypto trading?
To improve rapidly, you need guidance and support from a mentor or a community you trust.
Ideally, a rookie trader should start by choosing a reliable exchange and playing with popular coins, such as Bitcoin or Ethereum. However, the learning by doing approach is too slow for those who want to succeed fast. Joining a community of like-minded traders could be one of the best decisions to make: there are plenty of groups on Telegram or regular meetups in the US and other countries.
Also, resources such as Taklimakan Network, the blockchain investment platform, connect amateur crypto investors and traders with industry experts. The company’s ICO started in April and will finish on August 31.
Unlike numerous intermediaries in the crypto world, the platform’s goal is actually to teach you to make your own investment decisions. Taklimakan Network is encouraging experienced pros to share opinions on crypto markets and blockchain projects, helping crypto newbies to trade from the position of knowledge.
What is Blockchain Technology? A Step-by-Step Guide For Beginners
The blockchain is an undeniably ingenious invention – the brainchild of a person or group of people known by the pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto. But since then, it has evolved into something greater, and the main question every single person is asking is: What is Blockchain?
Is Blockchain Technology the New Internet?
By allowing digital information to be distributed but not copied, blockchain technology created the backbone of a new type of internet. Originally devised for the digital currency, Bitcoin blockchain, (Buy Bitcoin) the tech community has now found other potential uses for the technology.
In this guide, we are going to explain to you what the blockchain technology is, and what its properties are what make it so unique. So, we hope you enjoy this, What Is Blockchain Guide. And if you already know what blockchain is and want to become a blockchain developer please check out our in-depth blockchain tutorial and create your very first blockchain.
A blockchain is, in the simplest of terms, a time-stamped series of immutable records of data that is managed by a cluster of computers not owned by any single entity. Each of these blocks of data (i.e. block) is secured and bound to each other using cryptographic principles (i.e. chain).
So, what is so special about it and why are we saying that it has industry-disrupting capabilities?
The blockchain network has no central authority — it is the very definition of a democratized system. Since it is a shared and immutable ledger, the information in it is open for anyone and everyone to see. Hence, anything that is built on the blockchain is by its very nature transparent and everyone involved is accountable for their actions.
What exactly is Blockchain?
A blockchain carries no transaction cost.
(An infrastructure cost yes, but no transaction cost.) The blockchain is a simple yet ingenious way of passing information from A to B in a fully automated and safe manner. One party to a transaction initiates the process by creating a block. This block is verified by thousands, perhaps millions of computers distributed around the net. The verified block is added to a chain, which is stored across the net, creating not just a unique record, but a unique record with a unique history. Falsifying a single record would mean falsifying the entire chain in millions of instances. That is virtually impossible. Bitcoin uses this model for monetary transactions, but it can be deployed in many other ways.
Think of a railway company. We buy tickets on an app or the web. The credit card company takes a cut for processing the transaction. Blockchains, not only can the railway operator save on credit card processing fees, it can move the entire ticketing process to the blockchain. The two parties in the transaction are the railway company and the passenger. The ticket is a block, which will be added to a ticket blockchain. Just as a monetary transaction on the blockchain is a unique, independently verifiable and unfalsifiable record (like Bitcoin), so can your ticket be. Incidentally, the final ticket blockchain is also a record of all transactions for, say, a certain train route, or even the entire train network, comprising every ticket ever sold, every journey ever taken.
But the key here is this: it’s free. Not only can the blockchain transfer and store money, but it can also replace all processes and business models that rely on charging a small fee for a transaction. Or any other transaction between two parties.
Here is another example. The gig economy hub Fivver charges 0.5 dollars on a 5 transaction between individuals buying and selling services. Using blockchain the transaction is free. Ergo, Fivver will cease to exist. So will auction houses and any other business entity based on the market-maker principle.
Even recent entrants like Uber and Airbnb are threatened by blockchain . All you need to do is encode the transactional information for a car ride or an overnight stay, and again you have a perfectly safe way that disrupts the business model of the companies which have just begun to challenge the traditional economy. We are not just cutting out the fee-processing middle man, we are also eliminating the need for the match-making platform.
Because blockchain transactions are free, you can charge minuscule amounts, say 1/100 of a cent for a video view or article read. Why should I pay The Economist or National Geographic an annual subscription fee if I can pay per article on Facebook or my favorite chat app? Again, remember that blockchain transactions carry no transaction cost. You can charge for anything in any amount without worrying about third parties cutting into your profits.
Blockchain may make selling recorded music profitable again for artists by cutting out music companies and distributors like Apple or Spotify. The music you buy could even be encoded in the blockchain itself, making it a cloud archive for any song purchased. Because the amounts charged can be so small, subscription and streaming services will become irrelevant.
It goes further. Ebooks could be fitted with blockchain code. Instead of Amazon taking a cut, and the credit card company earning money on the sale, the books would circulate in encoded form and a successful blockchain transaction would transfer money to the author and unlock the book. Transfer ALL the money to the author, not just meager royalties. You could do this on a book review website like Goodreads, or on your own website. The marketplace Amazon is then unnecessary. Successful iterations could even include reviews and other third-party information about the book.
In the financial world the applications are more obvious and the revolutionary changes more imminent. Blockchains will change the way stock exchanges work, loans are bundled, and insurances contracted. They will eliminate bank accounts and practically all services offered by banks. Almost every financial institution will go bankrupt or be forced to change fundamentally, once the advantages of a safe ledger technology without transaction fees are widely understood and implemented. After all, the financial system is built on taking a small cut of your money for the privilege of facilitating a transaction. Bankers will become mere advisers, not gatekeepers of money. Stockbrokers will no longer be able to earn commissions and the buy/sell spread will disappear.
How Does a Blockchain Work?
Picture a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then imagine that this network is designed to regularly update this spreadsheet and you have a basic understanding of the blockchain.
Information held on a blockchain exists as a shared — and continually reconciled — database. This is a way of using the network that has obvious benefits. The blockchain database isn’t stored in any single location, meaning the records it keeps are truly public and easily verifiable. No centralized version of this information exists for a hacker to corrupt. Hosted by millions of computers simultaneously, its data is accessible to anyone on the internet.
To go in deeper with the Google spreadsheet analogy, I would like you to read this piece from a blockchain specialist.
“The traditional way of sharing documents with collaboration is to send a Microsoft Word document to another recipient and ask them to make revisions to it. The problem with that scenario is that you need to wait until receiving a return copy before you can see or make other changes because you are locked out of editing it until the other person is done with it. That’s how databases work today. Two owners can’t be messing with the same record at once. That’s how banks maintain money balances and transfers; they briefly lock access (or decrease the balance) while they make a transfer, then update the other side, then re-open access (or update again). With Google Docs (or Google Sheets), both parties have access to the same document at the same time, and the single version of that document is always visible to both of them. It is like a shared ledger, but it is a shared document. The distributed part comes into play when sharing involves a number of people.
Imagine the number of legal documents that should be used that way. Instead of passing them to each other, losing track of versions, and not being in sync with the other version, why can’t *all* business documents become shared instead of transferred back and forth? So many types of legal contracts would be ideal for that kind of workflow. You don’t need a blockchain to share documents, but the shared documents analogy is a powerful one.” – William Mougayar, Venture advisor, 4x entrepreneur, marketer, strategist, and blockchain specialist
The reason why the blockchain has gained so much admiration is that:
- It is not owned by a single entity, hence it is decentralized
- The data is cryptographically stored inside
- The blockchain is immutable, so no one can tamper with the data that is inside the blockchain
- The blockchain is transparent so one can track the data if they want to
The Three Pillars of Blockchain Technology
The three main properties of Blockchain Technology which have helped it gain widespread acclaim are as follows:
Pillar #1: Decentralization
Before Bitcoin and BitTorrent came along, we were more used to centralized services. The idea is very simple. You have a centralized entity that stored all the data and you’d have to interact solely with this entity to get whatever information you required.
Another example of a centralized system is the banks. They store all your money, and the only way that you can pay someone is by going through the bank.
The traditional client-server model is a perfect example of this:
When you google search for something, you send a query to the server who then gets back at you with the relevant information. That is a simple client-server.
Now, centralized systems have treated us well for many years, however, they have several vulnerabilities.
- Firstly, because they are centralized, all the data is stored in one spot. This makes them easy target spots for potential hackers.
- If the centralized system were to go through a software upgrade, it would halt the entire system
- What if the centralized entity somehow shuts down for whatever reason? That way nobody will be able to access the information that it possesses
- Worst case scenario, what if this entity gets corrupted and malicious? If that happens then all the data that is inside the blockchain will be compromised.
So, what happens if we just take this centralized entity away?
In a decentralized system, the information is not stored by one single entity. In fact, everyone in the network owns the information.
In a decentralized network, if you wanted to interact with your friend then you can do so directly without going through a third party. That was the main ideology behind Bitcoins. You and only you alone are in charge of your money. You can send your money to anyone you want without having to go through a bank.
Pillar #2: Transparency
One of the most interesting and misunderstood concepts in blockchain is “transparency.” Some people say that blockchain gives you privacy while some say that it is transparent. Why do you think that happens?
Well… a person’s identity is hidden via complex cryptography and represented only by their public address. So, if you were to look up a person’s transaction history, you will not see “Bob sent 1 BTC” instead you will see “1MF1bhsFLkBzzz9vpFYEmvwT2TbyCt7NZJ sent 1 BTC”.
The following snapshot of Ethereum transactions will show you what we mean:
So, while the person’s real identity is secure, you will still see all the transactions that were done by their public address. This level of transparency has never existed before within a financial system. It adds that extra, and much needed, level of accountability which is required by some of these biggest institutions.
Speaking purely from the point of view of cryptocurrency, if you know the public address of one of these big companies, you can simply pop it in an explorer and look at all the transactions that they have engaged in. This forces them to be honest, something that they have never had to deal with before.
However, that’s not the best use-case. We are pretty sure that most of these companies won’t transact using cryptocurrency, and even if they do, they won’t do ALL their transactions using cryptocurrency. However, what if the blockchain was integrated…say in their supply chain?
You can see why something like this can be very helpful for the finance industry right?
Pillar #3: Immutability
Immutability, in the context of the blockchain, means that once something has been entered into the blockchain, it cannot be tampered with.
Can you imagine how valuable this will be for financial institutes?
Imagine how many embezzlement cases can be nipped in the bud if people know that they can’t “work the books” and fiddle around with company accounts.
The reason why the blockchain gets this property is that of the cryptographic hash function.
In simple terms, hashing means taking an input string of any length and giving out an output of a fixed length. In the context of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, the transactions are taken as input and run through a hashing algorithm (Bitcoin uses SHA-256) which gives an output of a fixed length.
Let’s see how the hashing process works. We are going to put in certain inputs. For this exercise, we are going to use the SHA-256 (Secure Hashing Algorithm 256).
As you can see, in the case of SHA-256, no matter how big or small your input is, the output will always have a fixed 256-bits length. This becomes critical when you are dealing with a huge amount of data and transactions. So basically, instead of remembering the input data which could be huge, you can just remember the hash and keep track.
A cryptographic hash function is a special class of hash functions that has various properties making it ideal for cryptography. There are certain properties that a cryptographic hash function needs to have in order to be considered secure. You can read about those in detail in our guide on hashing.
There is just one property that we want you to focus on today. It is called the “Avalanche Effect.”
What does that mean?
Even if you make a small change in your input, the changes that will be reflected in the hash will be huge. Let’s test it out using SHA-256:
Do you see that? Even though you just changed the case of the first alphabet of the input, look at how much that has affected the output hash. Now, let’s go back to our previous point when we were looking at blockchain architecture. What we said was:
The blockchain is a linked list that contains data and a hash pointer that points to its previous block, hence creating the chain. What is a hash pointer? A hash pointer is similar to a pointer, but instead of just containing the address of the previous block it also contains the hash of the data inside the previous block.
This one small tweak is what makes blockchains so amazingly reliable and trailblazing.
Imagine this for a second, a hacker attacks block 3 and tries to change the data. Because of the properties of hash functions, a slight change in data will change the hash drastically. This means that any slight changes made in block 3, will change the hash which is stored in block 2, now that in turn will change the data and the hash of block 2 which will result in changes in block 1 and so on and so forth. This will completely change the chain, which is impossible. This is exactly how blockchains attain immutability.
Maintaining the Blockchain – Network, and Nodes
The blockchain is maintained by a peer-to-peer network. The network is a collection of nodes that are interconnected to one another. Nodes are individual computers that take in input and performs a function on them and gives an output. The blockchain uses a special kind of network called “peer-to-peer network” which partitions its entire workload between participants, who are all equally privileged, called “peers”. There is no longer one central server, now there are several distributed and decentralized peers.
Why do people use the peer-to-peer network?
One of the main uses of the peer-to-peer network is file sharing, also called torrenting. If you are to use a client-server model for downloading, then it is usually extremely slow and entirely dependent on the health of the server. Plus, as we said, it is prone to censorship.
However, in a peer-to-peer system, there is no central authority, and hence if even one of the peers in the network goes out of the race, you still have more peers to download from. Plus, it is not subject to the idealistic standards of a central system, hence it is not prone to censorship.
If we were to compare the two:
Image courtesy: Quora
The decentralized nature of a peer-to-peer system becomes critical as we move on to the next section. How critical? Well, the simple (at least on paper) idea of combining this peer-to-peer network with a payment system has completely revolutionized the finance industry by giving birth to cryptocurrency.
The use of networks and nodes in cryptocurrencies.
The peer-to-peer network structure in cryptocurrency is structured according to the consensus mechanism that they are utilizing. For cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and Ethereum which uses a normal proof-of-work consensus mechanism (Ethereum will eventually move on to Proof of Stake), all the nodes have the same privilege. The idea is to create an egalitarian network. The nodes are not given any special privileges, however, their functions and degree of participation may differ. There is no centralized server/entity, nor is there any hierarchy. It is a flat topology.
These decentralized cryptocurrencies are structured like that is because of a simple reason, to stay true to their philosophy. The idea is to have a currency system, where everyone is treated as an equal and there is no governing body, which can determine the value of the currency based on a whim. This is true for both bitcoin and Ethereum.
Now, if there is no central system, how would everyone in the system get to know that a certain transaction has happened? The network follows the gossip protocol. Think of how gossip spreads. Suppose Alice sent 3 ETH to Bob. The nodes nearest to her will get to know of this, and then they will tell the nodes closest to them, and then they will tell their neighbors, and this will keep on spreading out until everyone knows. Nodes are basically your nosy, annoying relatives.
So, what is a node in the context of Ethereum? A node is simply a computer that participates in the Ethereum network. This participation can be in three ways
- By keeping a shallow-copy of the blockchain aka a Light Client
- By keeping a full copy of the blockchain aka a Full Node
- By verifying the transactions aka Mining
However, the problem with this design is that it is not really that scalable. Which is why a lot of new generation cryptocurrencies adopt a leader-based consensus mechanism. In EOS, Cardano, Neo, etc. the nodes elect leader nodes or “supernodes” who are in charge of the consensus and overall network health. These cryptos are a lot faster but they are not the most decentralized of systems.
So, in a way, cryptos have to make the trade-off between speed and decentralization.
Who Will Use The Blockchain?
As a web infrastructure, you don’t need to know about the blockchain for it to be useful in your life.
Currently, finance offers the strongest use cases for the technology. International remittances, for instance. The World Bank estimates that over $430 billion US in money transfers were sent in 2020. And at the moment there is a high demand for blockchain developers.
The blockchain potentially cuts out the middleman for these types of transactions. Personal computing became accessible to the general public with the invention of the Graphical User Interface (GUI), which took the form of a “desktop”. Similarly, the most common GUI devised for the blockchain are the so-called “wallet” applications, which people use to buy things with Bitcoin, and store it along with other cryptocurrencies.
Transactions online are closely connected to the processes of identity verification. It is easy to imagine that wallet apps will transform in the coming years to include other types of identity management.
What is Blockchain good for?
The blockchain network gives internet users the ability to create value and authenticates digital information. What new business applications will result from this?
#1 Smart contracts
Distributed ledger technology enable the coding of simple contracts that will execute when specified conditions are met. Ethereum is an open-source blockchain project that was built specifically to realize this possibility. Still, in its early stages, Ethereum has the potential to leverage the usefulness of blockchains on a truly world-changing scale.
At the technology’s current level of development, smart contracts can be programmed to perform simple functions. For instance, a derivative could be paid out when a financial instrument meets a certain benchmark, with the use of blockchain technology and Bitcoin enabling the payout to be automated.
#2 The sharing economy
With companies like Uber and Airbnb flourishing, the sharing economy is already a proven success. Currently, however, users who want to hail a ride-sharing service have to rely on an intermediary like Uber. By enabling peer-to-peer payments, the blockchain opens the door to direct interaction between parties — a truly decentralized sharing economy results.
An early example, OpenBazaar uses the blockchain to create a peer-to-peer eBay. Download the app onto your computing device, and you can transact with OpenBazzar vendors without paying transaction fees. The “no rules” ethos of the protocol means that personal reputation will be even more important to business interactions than it currently is on eBay.
Crowdfunding initiatives like Kickstarter and Gofundme are doing the advance work for the emerging peer-to-peer economy. The popularity of these sites suggests people want to have a direct say in product development. Blockchains take this interest to the next level, potentially creating crowd-sourced venture capital funds.
In 2020, one such experiment, the Ethereum-based DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization), raised an astonishing $200 million USD in just over two months. Participants purchased “DAO tokens” allowing them to vote on smart contract venture capital investments (voting power was proportionate to the number of DAO they were holding). A subsequent hack of project funds proved that the project was launched without proper due diligence, with disastrous consequences. Regardless, the DAO experiment suggests the blockchain has the potential to usher in “a new paradigm of economic cooperation.”
By making the results fully transparent and publicly accessible, distributed database technology could bring full transparency to elections or any other kind of poll taking. Ethereum-based smart contracts help to automate the process.
The app, Boardroom, enables organizational decision-making to happen on the blockchain. In practice, this means company governance becomes fully transparent and verifiable when managing digital assets, equity or information.
#5 Supply chain auditing
Consumers increasingly want to know that the ethical claims companies make about their products are real. Distributed ledgers provide an easy way to certify that the backstories of the things we buy are genuine. Transparency comes with blockchain-based timestamping of a date and location — on ethical diamonds, for instance — that corresponds to a product number.
The UK-based Provenance offers supply chain auditing for a range of consumer goods. Making use of the Ethereum blockchain, a Provenance pilot project ensures that fish sold in Sushi restaurants in Japan have been sustainably harvested by its suppliers in Indonesia.
#6 File storage
Decentralizing file storage on the internet brings clear benefits. Distributing data throughout the network protects files from getting hacked or lost.
InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) makes it easy to conceptualize how a distributed web might operate. Similar to the way a BitTorrent moves data around the internet, IPFS gets rid of the need for centralized client-server relationships (i.e., the current web). An internet made up of completely decentralized websites has the potential to speed up file transfer and streaming times. Such an improvement is not only convenient. It’s a necessary upgrade to the web’s currently overloaded content-delivery systems.
#7 Prediction markets
The crowdsourcing of predictions on event probability is proven to have a high degree of accuracy. Averaging opinions cancels out the unexamined biases that distort judgment. Prediction markets that payout according to event outcomes are already active. Blockchains are a “wisdom of the crowd” technology that will no doubt find other applications in the years to come.
The prediction market application Augur makes share offerings on the outcome of real-world events. Participants can earn money by buying into the correct prediction. The more shares purchased in the correct outcome, the higher the payout will be. With a small commitment of funds (less than a dollar), anyone can ask a question, create a market based on a predicted outcome, and collect half of all transaction fees the market generates.
#8 Protection of intellectual property
As is well known, digital information can be infinitely reproduced — and distributed widely thanks to the internet. This has given web users globally a goldmine of free content. However, copyright holders have not been so lucky, losing control over their intellectual property and suffering financially as a consequence. Smart contracts can protect copyright and automate the sale of creative works online, eliminating the risk of file copying and redistribution.
Mycelia uses the blockchain to create a peer-to-peer music distribution system. Founded by the UK singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, Mycelia enables musicians to sell songs directly to audiences, as well as license samples to producers and divvy up royalties to songwriters and musicians — all of these functions being automated by smart contracts. The capacity of blockchains to issue payments in fractional cryptocurrency amounts (micropayments) suggests this use case for the blockchain has a strong chance of success.
#9 Internet of Things (IoT)
What is the IoT? The network-controlled management of certain types of electronic devices — for instance, the monitoring of air temperature in a storage facility. Smart contracts make the automation of remote systems management possible. A combination of software, sensors, and the network facilitates an exchange of data between objects and mechanisms. The result increases system efficiency and improves cost monitoring.
The biggest players in manufacturing, tech, and telecommunications are all vying for IoT dominance. Think Samsung, IBM, and AT&T. A natural extension of existing infrastructure controlled by incumbents, IoT applications will run the gamut from predictive maintenance of mechanical parts to data analytics, and mass-scale automated systems management.
#10 Neighbourhood Microgrids
Blockchain technologies enables the buying and selling of the renewable energy generated by neighborhood microgrids. When solar panels make excess energy, Ethereum-based smart contracts automatically redistribute it. Similar types of smart contract automation will have many other applications as the IoT becomes a reality.
Located in Brooklyn, Consensys is one of the foremost companies globally that is developing a range of applications for Ethereum. One project they are partnering on is Transactive Grid, working with the distributed energy outfit, LO3. A prototype project currently up and running uses Ethereum smart contracts to automate the monitoring and redistribution of microgrid energy. This so-called “intelligent grid” is an early example of IoT functionality.
#11 Identity management
There is a definite need for better identity management on the web. The ability to verify your identity is the lynchpin of financial transactions that happen online. However, remedies for the security risks that come with web commerce are imperfect at best. Distributed ledgers offer enhanced methods for proving who you are, along with the possibility to digitize personal documents. Having a secure identity will also be important for online interactions — for instance, in the sharing economy. A good reputation, after all, is the most important condition for conducting transactions online.
Developing digital identity standards is proving to be a highly complex process. Technical challenges aside, a universal online identity solution requires cooperation between private entities and the government. Add to that the need to navigate legal systems in different countries and the problem becomes exponentially difficult. An E-Commerce on the internet currently relies on the SSL certificate (the little green lock) for secure transactions on the web. Netki is a startup that aspires to create an SSL standard for the blockchain. Having recently announced a $3.5 million seed round, Netki expects a product launch in early 2020.
#12 AML and KYC
Anti-money laundering (AML) and know your customer (KYC) practices have a strong potential for being adapted to the blockchain. Currently, financial institutions must perform a labor-intensive multi-step process for each new customer. KYC costs could be reduced through cross-institution client verification and at the same time increase monitoring and analysis effectiveness.
Startup Polycoin has an AML/KYC solution that involves analyzing transactions. Those transactions identified as being suspicious are forwarded on to compliance officers. Another startup, Tradle is developing an application called Trust in Motion (TiM). Characterized as an “Instagram for KYC”, TiM allows customers to take a snapshot of key documents (passport, utility bill, etc.). Once verified by the bank, this data is cryptographically stored on the blockchain.
#13 Data management
Today, in exchange for their personal data people can use social media platforms like Facebook for free. In future, users will have the ability to manage and sell the data their online activity generates. Because it can be easily distributed in small fractional amounts, Bitcoin — or something like it — will most likely be the currency that gets used for this type of transaction.
The MIT project Enigma understands that user privacy is the key precondition for creating of a personal data marketplace. Enigma uses cryptographic techniques to allow individual data sets to be split between nodes and at the same time run bulk computations over the data group as a whole. Fragmenting the data also makes Enigma scalable (unlike those blockchain solutions where data gets replicated on every node). A Beta launch is promised within the next six months.
#14 Land title registration
As Publicly-accessible ledgers, blockchains can make all kinds of record-keeping more efficient. Property titles are a case in point. They tend to be susceptible to fraud, as well as costly and labor-intensive to administer.
A number of countries are undertaking blockchain-based land registry projects. Honduras was the first government to announce such an initiative in 2020, although the current status of that project is unclear. This year, the Republic of Georgia cemented a deal with the Bitfury Group to develop a blockchain system for property titles. Reportedly, Hernando de Soto, the high-profile economist, and property rights advocate will be advising on the project. Most recently, Sweden announced it was experimenting with a blockchain application for property titles.
#15 Stock trading
The potential for added efficiency in share settlement makes a strong use case for blockchains in stock trading. When executed peer-to-peer, trade confirmations become almost instantaneous (as opposed to taking three days for clearance). Potentially, this means intermediaries — such as the clearing house, auditors and custodians — get removed from the process.
Numerous stock and commodities exchanges are prototyping blockchain applications for the services they offer, including the ASX (Australian Securities Exchange), the Deutsche Börse (Frankfurt’s stock exchange) and the JPX (Japan Exchange Group). Most high profile because the acknowledged first mover in the area, is the Nasdaq’s Linq, a platform for private market trading (typically between pre-IPO startups and investors). A partnership with the blockchain tech company Chain, Linq announced the completion of it its first share trade in 2020. More recently, Nasdaq announced the development of a trial blockchain project for proxy voting on the Estonian Stock Market.
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