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Why Use Bitcoins?
Well, there are practical benefits. Transactions aren't always instantaneous, but the money will usually be with the recipient within ten minutes - that's much faster than most bank systems. Fees are lower too. Indeed, there often aren't any fees at all.
Besides these plus points and the anonymity, most users love the fact that Bitcoin isn't controlled by anyone. There's also a finite number of coins in circulation. Ultimately, there should be 21 million coins in existence. But there won't ever be more than that. Theoretically, that makes Bitcoin safer than standard currencies, as there's no central bank to keep printing money again and again.
Of course, it's not all pluses for Bitcoin. You probably won't be able to use it in shops and restaurants - although this should change as the currency becomes more popular. And the value of your money can fall and rise dramatically - even if the amount of Bitcoins remains static, the actual value of your account can undergo huge changes in the space of a few hours. Assuming you're happy with all of this, though, how do you get started?
The Open World of Bitcoin
Is it the future of banking? Is it the lifeblood that pulses through criminal gangs? Or is it a fad due soon to crash and burn? The digital currency Bitcoin has been described as many things in its short searing existence. 'Easy to pin down', isn't one of them.
So what is it that makes Bitcoin so different from standard currency? For a start, look at who owns or controls it - nobody, as it turns out. Well, that isn't strictly true, since the Bitcoin Community gets to decide how the currency morphs and twists. However, there's no one corporation, body or government who calls the shots.
So How Is It Organised?
All Bitcoin transactions are kept in a set of records known as the Blockchain. Effectively, the Blockchain amounts to a list of every Bitcoin transaction ever made. As fresh new individual transactions are confirmed, these will be grouped together to form a new 'Block', and that Block can then be added to the existing Blockchain. Around six new Blocks are generated every hour, so the Blockchain is in constant flux.
It's partly the openness of Bitcoin that gives it its distinctive flavour. Every Bitcoin user downloads the latest copy of the Blockchain when they log into the network, and with so many copies in circulation, there are no opportunities to fiddle the system. All of the information is out there in the public domain. Indeed, if you wanted, you could take a specific Bitcoin address, and work back through the Blockchain, gleaning the exact value and activities of that Bitcoin address at any particular time.
Doesn't That Make It Rather Insecure?
At first, the openness of Bitcoin may seem rather unsettling. For the most part, users remain anonymous. However, if somebody has entered into a transaction with you, and can attach your name to a specific address, they could, if they wanted, look back through your past activities. This may or may not bother you. Most users, however, will employ a number of different Bitcoin addresses, so even if somebody does try to spy on them, they'll only get part of the picture.
And that anonymity is hugely welcome to many. Accounts can be set up in just a few seconds, and there are no security checks, no addresses or dates of birth or employment details to provide. Indeed, in many cases you don't even have to hand over an email address. Of course, that can be a drawback as well. If you lose your details, any Bitcoins in your account will be lost too, as there's nobody to go back to should you need a reminder. Also, once you've sent out money from your account, it's effectively gone. You could only get it back if the recipient chooses to return it to you. So it's important to be diligent, and to not make mistakes.
Creating a Bitcoin Account?
If you want to deal in Bitcoins, you'll need to download and install a Wallet. Effectively, this Wallet is where you store your cash. We say 'effectively' because technically, that's not what goes on underneath the bonnet. For practical purposes, it feels rather like a bank account. You'll be able to see all the Bitcoins allocated to your address. However, what a Wallet really does is to assign you a Private Key (or Seed). This Key is your personal signature, and tells other Bitcoin users that the transaction has really come from you. We can't overstate how important it is that you hold onto this Key. Lose it, and that could be all your money gone. In fact, once you've installed the Wallet software, the first thing you should do is to make a copy of the wallet.dat file. Put this somewhere secure, preferably on a flash drive which you'll store offsite - in the event of your computer going down in flames, you'll need the backed-up wallet.dat file if you want to recover your coins. However, provided you've taken sensible precautions, there's no reason to fear security with a Bitcoin Wallet.
So which Wallets are available? Well, here are some of the more popular ones available to UK users:
Bitcoin Core - This is the 'official' Wallet, and is updated by the Bitcoin development team. Unsurprisingly, then, it's the Wallet that new users tend to end up with by default. It's not a bad choice, but it is rather simple and lacking in hardcore features. It's also what's called a 'Heavy Wallet', which means that it needs to download the whole Bitcoin blockchain and then continually update it. That means you'll be downloading a fair number of gigabytes, and it can make the software a little unwieldy.
Armory - Like Bitcoin Core, Armory is also a Heavy Wallet. However, it's also a lot more advanced. Security features are a particular plus for Armory. Perhaps its most innovative feature is 'Cold Storage', which means that all security data is stored on a computer, and all transactions can be performed without any of the data being transmitted across the internet. The only way to steal your information would be to physically rob you of the computer or laptop - and even then, the thieves will almost certainly be defeated by the incredible encryption. The Wallet also offers multiple-signature, alongside other useful features. You can use a virtual keyboard to confound keyloggers, for instance. For the serious user, Armory is a superb option.
Hive - But what if you're taking your first steps into the world of Bitcoin? In that case, you might be better off with the ultra-friendly Hive. It's still highly secure, but its bright interface makes it easy to process transactions. It's also highly versatile (it can handle Litecoin as well as Bitcoin, for instance), and you can even get it to automatically back itself up to services like DropBox. And, helpfully, it's a 'Light Wallet', so you won't need to keep downloading new chains. If you're in doubt, this should be the first Wallet you download.
Coinkite - This is one of the better 'multi-currency' Wallets, supporting Litecoin and Darkcoin as well. It also has a debit card option, so you'll be able to spend Bitcoin at a greater number of outlets.
Multibit - This super-flexible software is as 'Light' as it gets, and can work easily across a variety of devices, while also offering multiple Wallets. It's not the most user-friendly, though.
Mycelium - This works on Mobiles, so is great for Bitcoin on the move. It also allows you to trade coins online.
In practice, you'll want to try out several of these. In fact, you shouldn't stick to just one Wallet, for security purposes. Instead, try and spread your money about a bit.
How Do You Get Bitcoins?
So, you've got your Wallet set up. Now all you need are some Bitcoins to trade. New users might be expecting to just hand over their credit card details and get a few Bitcoins deposited in return. However, because Bitcoin transactions are relatively secret, and offer little or no proof of purchase, banks and credit card companies (and, indeed, Bitcoin Sellers) are generally reluctant to get involved. These concerns may ease in the coming years. In the meantime, though, there are third-party sites who will let you buy Bitcoins for a (usually rather sizeable) price, and Bittylicious and CoinCorner are probably the best European/UK options here.
Perhaps the most popular way of getting your account started, though, is through Exchanges. These sites will generally require you to give proof of ID (often needing copies of bills, and photo ID). Once signed up, though, you can buy or sell Bitcoins at the going rate. If you want, you can hold on to the currency until it's worth more - many people try to make big profits simply through buying low and selling high. Coinfloor has made quite a splash since its entry into the market, although other options include CoinCorner and Yacuna. Bear in mind that there may be little to no protection for your funds at these sites. When Mt Gox was hacked, for instance, much of the money stored there went too. Sites like Coinfloor like to push the high level of their security, but it's best to be very cautious before you invest too heavily at an Exchange.
Of course, you don't necessarily have to fund your account. You may be able to sell products or services in return for Bitcoins. Alternatively, you might consider becoming a Miner.
What or Who are Bitcoin Miners?
In traditional financial systems, an individual or group will check and process transactions. Bitcoin, though, doesn't have a central body to handle these operations. So how does a Bitcoin transaction go from Person A to Person B? Well, the answer is through the Miners. These people take the various transactions, confirm them, and then write them into the Blockchain. In return, they get a 25 Bitcoin reward for every Block completed.
Anyone can, in theory, become a paid Miner. All you need is some software and a computer to run calculations on - and the more powerful the hardware and the more numbers you can crunch, the higher your wages are likely to be. However, the job isn't as simple as it sounds.
Each Miner takes a Block of transactions and then extracts information from the Block, turning that info into a sequence of letters and numbers called a 'Hash'. Each Hash is then written to the Blockchain, along with its relevant Block. Each Hash will be partly based on the Hash of the previous Block in the Blockchain, so there's a kind of evolutionary process going on whereby each Block's Hash seems to have descended from the previous one. That's important, because it makes it all but impossible to tamper with the transactions - any fake Hashes will clash with those around them, so any attempt to create a fake Hash will be quickly revealed and stamped out. Miners, then, not only take care of the administrative duties. They also ensure that all Blocks are authentic and untampered with.
However, there is a limit on how much money Bitcoin wants to generate through mining. Because there will never be more than 21 million Bitcoins, it's important to ensure that the mining can't be performed too easily. If it was really as simple as repackaging a few transactions and generating a security tag, that 21 million limit would have been hit long ago, and without the prospect of creating new Bitcoins as pay, there would no longer be any incentive for Miners to take care of transactions. Hence, the system uses a built-in difficulty rating to regulate the rate of completion. If the number of Blocks being added increases, the difficulty rating should rise as well - essentially, this will require your computer to perform more calculations, so slowing you down. So, through the use of a variable difficulty rating, Bitcoin can ensure a fairly constant stream of Blocks being added - currently around six an hour.
Being a Miner can net you an income, although the gains are likely to be fairly rare if you're by yourself - particularly if you don't have access to high-end hardware. Many individuals join Mining Pools, where profits are shared out amongst the members in order to keep up a regular level of pay.