Ultimately, Bitcoin mining is becoming an arms race. In the early days, anyone with a decent PC could generate Bitcoins through Bitcoin mining. Today, you need to collaborate with other Bitcoin miners in pools, strategically choose the location of your Bitcoin mining operation, and purchase ASIC-powered computers that are specially designed to handle Bitcoin mining.
All mining ASICs, Bitmain’s included, are performing essentially the same computation—the SHA-256 hashing algorithm—even if they go about it a bit differently. The standard algorithm takes 64 steps to complete, but in Bitcoin it is run twice for each block header, meaning a full round requires 128 steps that are heavy on integer addition. “That’s what dominates the whole design,” says Timo Hanke, the chief cryptographer at String Labs, a cryptography-focused incubator in Palo Alto, Calif. “So, if somebody was to optimize it, they have to optimize the adders. That’s where most of the work is.”
Bitcoin is the first cryptocurrency, a concept that was discussed in the late 90s. The first Bitcoin specification and proof of concept was published in 2009 in a cryptography mailing list. The concept was presented by a person or group known as Satoshi Nakamoto. The real identity of Nakamoto has been a mystery since that time, with various theories on who the individual or group may be.
The primary purpose of mining is to allow Bitcoin nodes to reach a secure, tamper-resistant consensus. Mining is also the mechanism used to introduce bitcoins into the system. Miners are paid transaction fees as well as a subsidy of newly created coins, called block rewards. This both serves the purpose of disseminating new coins in a decentralized manner as well as motivating people to provide security for the system through mining.
Still, even supporters acknowledge that that glorious future is going to use a lot of electricity. It’s true that many of the more alarming claims—for example, that by 2020, bitcoin mining will consume “as much electricity as the entire world does today,” as the environmental website Grist recently suggested—are ridiculous: Even if the current bitcoin load grew a hundredfold, it would still represent less than 2 percent of total global power consumption. (And for comparison, even the high-end estimates of bitcoin’s total current power consumption are still less than 6 percent of the power consumed by the world’s banking sector.) But the fact remains that bitcoin takes an astonishing amount of power. By one estimate, the power now needed to mine a single coin would run the average household for 10 days.
Each block that is added to the blockchain, starting with the block containing a given transaction, is called a confirmation of that transaction. Ideally, merchants and services that receive payment in bitcoin should wait for at least one confirmation to be distributed over the network, before assuming that the payment was done. The more confirmations that the merchant waits for, the more difficult it is for an attacker to successfully reverse the transaction in a blockchain—unless the attacker controls more than half the total network power, in which case it is called a 51% attack.
Behind the scenes, the Bitcoin network is sharing a massive public ledger called the "block chain". This ledger contains every transaction ever processed which enables a user's computer to verify the validity of each transaction. The authenticity of each transaction is protected by digital signatures corresponding to the sending addresses therefore allowing all users to have full control over sending bitcoins.
With no ties to a national economy and lofty goals, Bitcoin's price is famously volatile. Prices have soared and plummeted in the wake of various national policies, financial deals, competing cryptocurrencies, and fluctuating public opinion. On the other hand, as many sovereign nations find themselves with currencies that are also vulnerable, the citizens of countries such as China and Venezuela are turning increasingly to virtual currencies.
In 2014 prices started at $770 and fell to $314 for the year. In February 2014 the Mt. Gox exchange, the largest bitcoin exchange at the time, said that 850,000 bitcoins had been stolen from its customers, amounting to almost $500 million. Bitcoin's price fell by almost half, from $867 to $439 (a 49% drop). Prices remained low until late 2016.