When Ethereum burst onto the scene in 2015, this second-generation blockchain technology was to be everything that Bitcoin was not. More secure, more adaptable, more intelligent, and more future-proof than the first generation grandfather of the cryptocurrency revolution.
Originally the brainchild of Bitcoin Magazine co-Founder Vitalik Buterin, the concept for Ethereum was born in a 2013 white paper and launched after a two-year development period with some questioning whether the project would live up to lofty promises and groundbreaking technological claims.
The goal behind Ethereum development was the creation of decentralized applications (dApps) on the blockchain with the use of “smart contracts,” which are small pieces of self-executing software coded into the chain itself. Bitcoin simply wasn’t built for this or capable of natively operating in this way due to technical limitations. For example transaction speed and scalability.
Gen 2 Limitations
If Bitcoin was the first generation in 2009, and Ethereum was the second-generation in 2015, today we’re witnessing a host of projects hoping to carry the third generation mantle. Ethereum has some amazing benefits and has seriously advanced the blockchain industry by moving from a simple transaction ledger to the world of dApps driven by smart contracts, but there is always room for improvement. Even Buterin is aware of his project’s critics and has openly identified areas where his code is vulnerable to competitors.
Ethereum is built as a modular platform, analogous to building with legos, according to Buterin, but it hasn’t yet shed one of Bitcoin’s largest drawbacks: “Proof of Work” (PoW) transaction processing.
While the PoW algorithms in Ethereum are much more efficient than Bitcoin’s, they still require masses of computing power to secure the blockchain and record transactions. The other crippling effect is network speed which is determined by how much hashing power is currently at work to validate transactions. This causes challenges with scaling the network to achieve higher throughput and support a higher number of transactions.
In a 2016 Medium post, Buterin identified this disadvantage and explained his vision for how Ethereum could eventually shed PoW in favor of a Proof of Stake (PoS) algorithm. One for processing transactions which would no longer rely on superpowered computing using literal tons of electricity to validate operations on the blockchain ledger.
Instead, PoS would require minimal computing power and make the entire process more environmentally friendly, reduce transaction cost, and further decentralize the network by making participation in transaction validation more accessible to more users around the globe. This kind of change will take time, admitted Buterin, many years in fact since Ethereum was built with PoW as core functionality in 2015.
A year in the blockchain world is akin to a decade in other industries given the fast-moving pace of development and the current arms race between projects for who can come up with the next meaningful contribution to advance the blockchain universe of possibilities.
Birth of the “Ethereum Killer”
As technology progresses, “the next big thing” is always on the horizon. This couldn’t be more true for blockchain technology. Ethereum, like Bitcoin before it, was monumental in pushing the technology forward. However, with progress comes the price of growing competition. Here are five projects vying for the title of “Ethereum killer” and some background about how they intend to topple the reigning king of smart contracts.
Cardano is the creation of Charles Hoskinen, former co-founder of BitShares, Ethereum, and Ethereum Classic, so the project has leadership with deep knowledge of the blockchain space.
Advantages over ETH – Cardano was designed to challenge Ethereum in the world of smart contracts, as well as be more adaptable, but also overcome limitations of PoW by being inherently built with a native PoS algorithm for processing transactions.
The Cardano Ouroboros Proof of Stake Algorithm is simple and intelligent, making participation in network staking as easy as downloading the software and starting the process. Anyone who holds ADA coins can stake on the network to record transactions in a given block, no minimum amount of coins is required.
A “Slot Leader” is automatically selected from stakeholders by randomly choosing a single ADA coin which gives the owner of that coin the right to validate transactions for that block. The process needs minimal computing power and the Slot Leader earns some fractional rewards of additional ADA coins in the process.
Cardano also took the steps required to ensure that smart contracts written for Ethereum can be easily ported to Cardano’s Plutus smart contract language, a step that may prove valuable since it creates an easier on-ramp for existing Ethereum dApps..
Limitations – The smart contract functionality of Cardano is not yet available. There was a testnet launched in July of 2018 that developers can work with to learn about smart contracts in Cardano but this feature does not exist yet in production. Cardano smart contracts are scheduled to launch as part of the Goguen project in Q4 2018, though delays are always possible.
Bottom Line – Cardano has a well-functioning Proof of Stake algorithm, and regular engagement by Hoskinen with the community has created a strong following. There is a belief that the right technology being supported by the right leadership will rise to the top and with the founding of Cardano being rooted in blockchain tech, this combination could yield big dividends over time.
The challenges for Cardano consist of delivering the promised technology before competitors in the PoS market get there first. One of Cardano’s largest selling points, the smart contract layer which competes directly with Ethereum, has not yet been released which means the product isn’t truly able to compete on all fronts. This will change over time, but it is a notable shortcoming as other projects have already arrived at this milestone.
Tezos attracted tremendous attention in July of 2017 with one of the largest ICO fundraising periods of all time netting some $232 million. Created by a couple hailing from the world of finance, Arthur and Kathleen Breitman, Tezos set forth to create an entirely new blockchain featuring smart contracts based on a PoS algorithm.
Advantages over ETH – Tezos was built with a PoS algorithm which allows for greater decentralization of the network and far less energy use than Ethereum to process transactions. Staking on the network, which Tezos refers to as “Baking,” requires a minimum coin balance of 10,000. Coin holders with a lesser amount can “delegate” their tokens to a “Baker” who does the staking for them while the coin owner earns rewards in the form of new Tezos coins.
Tezos entered a beta period in June of this year and successfully launched the fully-functional production network in September. The project features smart contracts which can support dApps and sub-tokens, although a standard for tokens has not been established yet.
Tezos also features on-chain voting for protocol upgrades, something that has eluded all prior generation blockchains. The result of this voting, according to the project founders and the white paper, is to avoid the need for hard forks on the chain which end up creating competing factions, such as Ethereum and Ethereum Classic. While the possibility of a hard fork can still exist, the likelihood of such a move is greatly diminished.
The benefits of on-chain voting can include adopting new technologies, expanding the protocol, or recovering from software bugs all without the need of a hard-fork.
Limitations – While it’s not necessarily a limitation, Tezos is written in the OCaml programming language with smart contracts written in Michelson, a language created for Tezos. While OCaml is a secure option for a blockchain since it was designed as an industrial-strength functional language, the worldwide developer pool is comparatively small to other languages, and Ethereum has already had years to attract talent working on the core code. The question remains whether Tezos can attract avid development on the platform since it’s built with a lesser-known yet highly secure programming language.
Bottom Line – Tezos suffered setbacks in 2017 with delays that spanned well over 6 months beyond the originally forecasted launch date sometime in November of last year. There were issues with the organization of the Tezos Foundation, a nonprofit foundation set up in Switzerland to manage the ICO and oversee development which left users wondering in early 2018 if they’d ever get their promised coins.
Since the Tezos Foundation issues were worked out with the help of a dedicated community, the project got back on track in February of 2018. Once the project got moving, objectives were being met, and milestones were being checked off the list.
Tezos has some strong backing from billionaire Bitcoin investor Tim Draper, as well as having Olaf Carlson-Wee, Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Polychain Capital, sitting on the Foundation board. The project appears to be heading for new heights over the next six months since, up to now, the technology has lived up to the promises.
TRON is a unique blockchain project that was built for a specific use-case by creator Justin Sun. The original goal of TRON was to become a content distribution platform for the digital entertainment industry by cutting out the middleman and putting control in the hands of creators and consumers. However, with the TRON project growing, Sun has now positioned TRON as a direct competitor with Ethereum and he never misses a chance to sell his creation as the superior blockchain.
Advantages over ETH – TRON has several key advantages over the current state of the Ethereum chain which includes the native use of a Proof of Stake consensus algorithm, an incredibly high rate of transactions per second, and a growing ecosystem of dApps in development.
The developers of TRON worked meticulously over the shortcomings of Ethereum and tried to address each one including security, transaction costs, scalability, and overall network speed, among others.
TRON smart contracts are created and managed with a technology called the TRON Virtual Machine (TVM) that allows for multiple different languages to be used for development. This creates an easy transition from almost any other smart contract platform to the TRON platform without the need to learn a new development language.
Transaction speed is one of the biggest selling points in the TRON vs. Ethereum debate. TRON works “80 times faster than Ethereum,” according to founder Justin Sun, and as blockchains scale and become more widely adopted, Sun is counting on transactions per second as a key differentiating factor.
Limitations – It remains to be seen if TRON has the staying power to make a dent in Ethereum’s user base or market share. TRON has had some missteps, with accusations of white paper plagiarism and questionable marketing practices. The TVM for smart contracts just recently went live as part of a software upgrade on October 8 which means it is untested on a wider scale.
Bottom Line – TRON recently acquired BitTorrent, the largest torrent client with 100 million users globally. TRON plans to use this acquisition to leverage the large user base and demonstrate BitTorrent as a real-world use-case for TRON which would prove the technology at a massive scale.
Despite claims by Sun that TRON is outpacing Ethereum in terms of dApps and users, reports indicate the opposite is true with Ethereum processing over 500,000 transactions daily while TRON has not yet reached half of that number. With the TVM going live just days ago, TRON has some catching up to do but the technology seems to be there to support it.
Despite the criticism and refutable market share claims, TRON has a promising technology and if it can be harnessed on a platform like BitTorrent, it would break the market open and give TRON credibility in this space while proving the underlying technology in a mass use-case.
Originally envisioned by creator Da Hongfei, NEO is the first major blockchain project originating from China. Built with the long-term goals of scalability in mind, NEO began taking direct aim at Ethereum with support for smart contracts and a streamline PoS system for validating transactions.
The ability to work in several languages removes the barrier of entry for many developers and companies wishing to begin working with decentralized applications and experimenting with blockchain technology.
NEO also blows Ethereum away with transaction speed which is by design and a byproduct of the Delegated Byzantine Fault Tolerance (dBFT) algorithm developed for the chain. Similar to a traditional Proof of Stake algorithm, dBFT works by randomly selecting what is called a “bookkeeping node” to record transactions on an upcoming block. This method somewhat limits decentralization but allows for transactions speeds over 100,000 per second. It also prevents hard-forks on the chain since doing so requires a two-thirds majority to support such a move.
Limitations – Despite the technology, NEO has had problems shedding the image as the “Ethereum of China,” as it is sometimes referred to. It has also taken some heat for bowing to Chinese regulators which some view as antithetical to the goals and assumed anonymity of a decentralized blockchain environment.
Bottom Line – Despite criticism for engaging in talks with the Chinese government and bending toward the curb into regulation, NEO has pushed its way into the marketplace by working within the system to gain wider acceptance. Some blockchains exist to push an anarcho-capitalist philosophy and shun regulation while NEO, on the other hand, seems to embrace it and use it as a vehicle for navigating government scrutiny in the current environment.
When asked about decentralization and working within regulatory systems, Hongfei explained his design philosophy this way. “You can see on a spectrum, the most left side, censorship resistant and the most far right side, to be compatible, compliant with regulations, to be compatible with the current existing business world.” NEO, Hongfar explains, is more to the right on this spectrum, while Ethereum sits on the opposite side.
EOS creators Daniel Larimer and Brendan Blumer set out to meet the challenges of speed and scaling by building on the many breakthroughs made by Ethereum. While both creators acknowledge the success of Ethereum, they see it failing over the long-term, unable to keep up with the ever-growing demands as dApp usage grows and smart contracts become more ubiquitous.
Advantages over ETH – First and foremost, EOS touts blazing transaction speed which could eventually scale to upwards of 1 million transactions per second according to creators. This hasn’t been proven yet in real-world usage, but EOS has currently hit over 1,000 transactions per second which is far higher than Ethereum sitting around 30.
EOS will also feature a suite of smart contract development tools aimed at making the process easier and more available to a wider number of developers. EOS transactions also occur with zero transaction fees which is not trivial for most blockchains to achieve.
Compared to Ethereum, where the fees continue to rise due to demand, this is a major advantage for a smart contract platform which “represents mass, secure data transfer” similar to the way the internet is a form of mass insecure data transport.
Limitations – Speed and scaling do not come without tradeoffs. For EOS, the trade-off is an accepted level of centralization in exchange for incredible network speed. Unlike many of the other “Ethereum killers,” or even the Ethereum chain itself, EOS will have a set number of 21 transaction validators. This small number of nodes keeps the network transaction speed very high but fails the test of decentralization by congregating so much power into the hands of a small few.
Bottom Line – If you’re betting on transaction speed to win the race against Ethereum, EOS is running laps around most of its competitors. The challenge for EOS comes with the diminished level of decentralization which is becoming more and more important in a world where government regulators are taking a close look at the structure of various blockchains.
While the centralization issues are being worked out, EOS remains a threat to Ethereum but still has many challenges to overcome. The technology is there, but the experiment in how to best distribute and scale it will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future.
Will Ethereum stay ahead of the “killers?”
The “Ethereum killers” all share some similar aspects, such as lower energy use and lower (or zero) fees thanks to unique and competing Proof of Stake algorithms that facilitate network validation and security. Ethereum naturally holds the first-mover advantage and already features thousands upon thousands of dApps and sub-tokens running on the platform with more in development every day. This fact alone gives Ethereum a great hedge against challengers, but it does not make it invincible.
Buterin is not hiding the challenges faced by Ethereum which is why the ultimate “Ethereum killer” might just be closer to the source than you’d imagine. Speaking at a cryptocurrency conference in 2017, Buterin directly addressed this topic saying, “the Ethereum killer is Ethereum, the Ethereum of China is Ethereum, the Ethereum of Taiwan is Ethereum… 2.0.”
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