Bitcoin appeared around 2009 as a new form of digital currency and was develop from the off as open-source by a clever chap called Satoshi Nakamoto. We are told his true identify is 'shrouded in mystery' like he's some kind of Marvel superhero, I suspect this simply means he's a super nerd, but there's no question, he's certainly a pioneer...
So what's it all about?
Bitcoin is a form of currency the same as any other, however it is not under the control of any government or financial institution. The premise is for it to be owned and managed by its own community. Bitcoin is de-centralised and managed by peer-to-peer members who all partake in new transaction activity and store previous activity in what are known as 'block chains'. This means that a full 'copy' of all transactions are stored locally and used to verify, between participants, new activity, thereby preventing any one person from malforming, adding or creating fake transactions within the block chain. This 'consensus' approach protects the security of Bitcoin transactions. If you're interested in the calculation process then it's worth reading the original paper by Satoshi.
Bitcoin works in not a dissimilar way to PayPal in that you have a digital wallet with a unique address where people can send you Bitcoins. You can simply install a wallet on your device, or you can download the full Bitcoin wallet and participate in the network as a node.
Bitcoin's value is very much an effect of supply and demand with risky investors gambling on the highs. Currently a single Bitcoin (shown as 1.0000000) is worth £573 or $935. You can purchase Bitcoins at any of the 8 decimal places so for example 0.0100000 would cost you £5.70 and 0.1000000 would cost you £57.00, no surprise where Bitcoin got its name!
Ok, where do I buy Bitcoins?
Unless you have some Bitcoins coming your way via a payment, you will need to purchase Bitcoins in your existing currency. A good place to go is howtobuybitcoins.info and look at the options to purchase from a broker. Purchasing is all about trust as it is not regulated, however that's sort of how eBay started out, where users trusted each other to pay for and send items, and they've done rather well for themselves...
The Bitcoin coal face
Bitcoin mining, as it is known, is the process of generating (and securing) Bitcoins and a small payment in the form of units of Bitcoins are paid for the time and effort your hardware is used and your level of participation. This is done via a number of methods from using your own PC's CPU or GPU (not dissimilar to other grid based BOINC projects such as Seti@Home) to using ASIC miners (Application Specific Integrated Circuits), these are designed for the singular purpose for which they are built, which in this case is generating Bitcoins. Unless you have significant investment to purchase powerful ASIC miners such as those from butterflylabs.com which can run at 600GH/s (Hash's per second) you will have to look at USB ASIC Miners such as the popular BlockErupter which generate 336MH/s. Using the BlockErupters you can create your own USB hub style rig running lots of them concurrently.
The reality though, is that it may be too late in the game to make any serious money from Bitcoin mining. The complexity (Hash rate) of the block chain is now such that even joining and contributing to a Mining Pool, where miners work together and share the profits, will likely see more spent in electricity than in any real financial return. Also there is a maximum limit of 21 million Bitcoins and at present it is nearing 12.4 million and as more miners join, the quicker this limit will be reached. It is now more likely you will make money buying Bitcoins themselves than generating them.
The future of Bitcoin
Bitcoin is an emerging technology, as such the price has been volatile, however recently it has started to become more stable as the community of users grows. As of this writing, Bitcoin is seeing the number of transactions reach as high as 100,000 per day. While banks and big business are yet to consider whether Bitcoin is a threat or an opportunity, there is no doubt they are beginning to sit up and take notice of this new digital currency which continues to grow its user base daily.
Interestingly our mysterious Satoshi, the inventor of Bitcoin is thought to have over 1 million Bitcoins, which depending on fluctuations has been roughly valued at $1 billion dollars. Don't we all wish we had an idea like that...