Yesterday marked two records in the altcoin world: Ethereum’s per-coin value broke $1,000 (£737), and the rising value of Ripple supposedly boosted its co-founder Chris Larsen to an estimated net worth of $59.9 billion (£44 billion). Despite a very real speculation bubble around cryptocurrency, these financial gains are mostly on paper, and the two coins couldn’t be more different.
Unlike the recently cratering Bitcoin, which can’t decide if it’s a currency or a store of value, Ethereum bills itself as a blockchain app platform where transactions are used to pay for decentralised computing power. (The most visible of these apps so far has involved the breeding and trading of digital cats.) Despite its intentions, the coin’s skyrocketing value has much less to do with enabling trustless apps than the sort of wild speculation that drove a nearly 20x increase in bitcoin over last year.
Ripple is significantly less public-facing. Its core proposal is to facilitate fast, cheap transactions, mainly between banks, through a separate but related entity called Ripple Connect. The Ripple coin (XRP) exists independently in the hopes that banks will someday use it via Ripple Connect. It can’t be mined as other currencies can, and its worth per coin—despite holding the second largest market cap behind bitcoin—has yet to top £3.
The stark differences don’t end there. Larsen, a man in his late 50s, has a background in financial startups, and Ripple’s other now-departed cofounder Jed McCaleb is known for p2p software like eDonkey as well as being the original owner of Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox. Ethereum’s cofounder Vitalik Buterin is only 23 years old, and dropped out of university after receiving a Thiel Fellowship.
More germane to their potential wealth is their level of centralisation, reflected both in how transactions are validated (proof-of-work transitioning eventually to proof-of-stake in Ethereum’s case; Ripple uses consensus) and in what percentage its founders hold in their respective coins. Besides a 17 per cent stake in the company, 5.9 billion XRP are believe to line Larsen’s personal war chest, a bit over 5 per cent of all XRP in circulation.
In a response on Reddit in February of 2016, Buterin claimed to hold approximately 630,000 Ether (ETX), and by late April said he’d sold off about 25 per cent of his position. With less than half a per cent of the total ETX in circulation, he’s still (in theory) a multimillionaire. However, neither founder is likely to cash out their entire position, because one assumes both Buterin and Larsen expect their products to continue increasing in adoption and value, and because such a transaction would likely create panic among investors.
So while Larson may not, as one headline put it, be “richer than the Google founders” and Ethereum is almost certainly experiencing the same wild speculation that revealed Bitcoin’s technical inadequacies, real people are getting rich off cryptocurrencies. Just probably not you or me.