As a decentralized platform that utilizes blockchain technology, Ether has many of the advantages (better security, immutable, trustless, no need for a central authority) and drawbacks (scalability issues and high transaction fees) of Bitcoin. Its distinguishing feature, however, is the ability to generate and execute “smart contracts,” which are a set of terms and conditions that allow for the automated exchange of tokens or digital assets. For example, Alice may automatically receive Bob’s tokens when the Cubs win the World Series, and Bob may automatically receive Alice’s tokens when the White Sox win the World Series. Through the use of these smart contracts, companies can develop decentralized applications (dApps) on the Ethereum platform, where users receive digital assets when a particular set of conditions occur. The Ether coin is referred to as the “gas” for executing the smart contracts on the Ethereum platform, which means users have to pay a certain amount in Ether to run a contract.
Pros: Executes Turing-complete smart contracts; platform for developing dApps; allows for the exchange of a wide range of digital assets; strong leadership in Vitalik Buterin and a development team of over 200 contributors; several tokens run on the Ethereum ERC20 token standard; second largest market cap to Bitcoin
Cons: Scalability issues; rising transaction fees (has reached ~$0.50 per transaction); vulnerable to a 51% attack if a mining pool or anyone else controls over 50% of the mining power
To perform an objective analysis, each cryptocurrency is rated based on the following factors: (1) validation method; (2) leadership; (3) community participation in development; (4) transaction volume and market capitalization; (5) industry participation; (6) security; (7) usability; (8) technical features; (9) growth; (10) legal risks; and (11) estimated time of arrival.
Like Bitcoin, Ethereum uses a proof-of-work (POW) system to validate transactions by miners required to solve a cryptographic riddle which is difficult to compute but easy for others to verify. Therefore, mining requires a large amount of computing resources and electricity. Additionally, a POW system is vulnerable to a 51% attack, where a single miner or mining pool (made up of several miners working together who split the rewards) has more than half of the mining power of the network. As a result, the miner can refuse to validate transactions and can double-spend Ether. On the other hand, the likelihood of a 51% attack is low, because this would devalue the currency that the miners are working to obtain.
Currently, Ethereum is considering switching to a proof-of-stake (POS) system called Casper, where the validator for the next block is selected based on a combination of random selection, account balance, and the number of days the coins have been held.
The Ethereum Foundation is led by Vitalik Buterin, a Russian-Candian programmer and entrepreneur who co-founded Ethereum before he turned 20 and has been referred to as a “boy genius.” The Ethereum Foundation includes over 200 members who are actively improving the functionality of the network. Software updates are added on Github on a regular basis.
Transaction Volume and Market Capitalization
Ether has the second largest market cap to Bitcoin (~$80B)  and a transaction volume of about 1 million transactions per day. Nevertheless, Ether has been experiencing scalability issues as transaction volume has rapidly increased leading to rising transaction fees. Multiple solutions to this problem have been proposed including a multi-layered protocol similar to Bitcoin’s Lightning Network where most transactions will occur on off-chain micropayment channels. Another proposed solution is referred to as “sharding,” where nodes no longer store the full state of the network and instead each node merely stores a subset of the data. Then the nodes communicate with each other to obtain data which is not stored at a particular node. But, this system isn’t trustless since nodes need to obtain data from the other nodes.
Several players have been involved in creating dApps on the Ethereum platform. This includes CryptoKitties (an extremely popular game where virtual cats have been sold for up to $100k), Eth-Tweet (a microblogging service), and WeiFund (a crowdfunding service). While we have not yet seen dApps created by large companies, some big businesses such as Toyota have been experimenting with applications utilizing the Ethereum blockchain.
In terms of security, Ether has many of the same advantages and disadvantages as Bitcoin. Executing smart contracts on the blockchain may open Ether up to additional security issues, however, because the code used to run the smart contracts is made public. Everyone in the network then has the ability to review the code, find bugs, and exploit them before the developers become aware of the bugs and are able to make corrections.
Ether is a utility token used as fuel for operating the Ethereum platform. This means that each time a developer creates a smart contract or issues a token on the Ethereum platform, a designated amount of Ether is transferred. Several tokens and altcoins have been created on the Ethereum platform using the token standard ERC20. These tokens include: Tron, ICON, OmiseGo, Binance Coin, VeChain, Tether, Golem, and many others.
Although smart contracts can also be executed using Bitcoin, the Bitcoin smart contracts have limited functionality. Ethereum, on the other hand, uses an Ethereum Virtual Machine which executes Turing-complete smart contracts that can perform just about any computation, and are not limited to exchanging tokens. In this manner, additional information can be recorded and exchanged via the blockchain, such as identity information, product information, etc. Ethereum also utilizes oracles to communicate with the off-blockchain world for evaluating conditions in the contract. For example, if the terms of the contract indicate that Alice will receive 100 Ether from Bob if the average temperature in Chicago is over 50 degrees in January, an oracle collects temperature data for Chicago which is then evaluated by the smart contract.
Currently, there are over 32000 ERC20 token contracts executing on the Ethereum platform, and this number has been increasing at an exponential rate. As developers and companies find more uses for smart contracts, the value of Ether should continue to rise. Even though the supply of Ether is technically unlimited, the issuance of Ether is capped at 18 million per year.
Estimated Time of Arrival
Like Bitcoin, Ether is currently in use and several developers have created dApps and tokens on the Ethereum platform. While it is still in its infancy, developers will likely experiment with more and more uses of smart contracts.
Ether has the advantage of being the first cryptocurrency to be used in the execution of Turing-complete smart contracts. The possibilities for these contracts are endless, and the Ethereum project has the opportunity to transform not only the legal landscape, but how people and machines exchange value.