Bitcoin Dispute: Will Digital Currency Implode?

Bitcoin Dispute: Will Digital Currency Implode?
  1. Bitcoin Dispute: Will Digital Currency Implode?
    Got some bitcoin? An internal dispute over the digital currency could soon mean financial losses, whipsawing prices and delays in processing payments. It's also possible that nothing…
Got some bitcoin? An internal dispute over the digital currency could soon mean financial losses, whipsawing prices and delays in processing payments.

It's also possible that nothing much changes. It all depends on whether the people who maintain bitcoin can agree by July 31 to implement a major software upgrade -- one designed to improve capacity on the increasingly clogged network.

Not everyone is on board. In particular, some bitcoin "miners," who are rewarded for verifying transactions, aren't supporting the changes. Any split between miners and others who use bitcoin, including a number of startups and a few big companies, could cause a panic in the $39 billion bitcoin marketplace.

So far, bitcoin's value in U.S. dollars has soared amid the uncertainty. It's currently at about $2,300, more than triple what it was a year ago. But bitcoin is notoriously volatile; because the price spiked so rapidly, it also fell quickly, and bitcoin has lost about a quarter of its value since its peak in June at above $3,000.

Here's a look at the current dispute.

What Is Bitcoin, Again?

Bitcoin is a digital currency that's not tied to any bank or government . Like cash, it lets users spend or receive money anonymously, or mostly so; like other online payment services, it also lets them do so over the internet.

The coins are created by computer farms that "mine" them and verify other users' transactions by solving complex mathematical puzzles. Miners receive bitcoin in exchange. It's also possible to exchange bitcoin for U.S. dollars and other currencies.

Bitcoin has been touted as a currency of the future, but so far it hasn't proven very popular as a way to pay for goods or services.

What's Behind the Fuss?

In a word, speed.

The bitcoin network is limited in how quickly it can shuffle around digital money. As bitcoin has grown, payment delays have become more common and worrisome.

Some software developers came up with a new way to speed things up by reengineering bitcoin's universal ledger, a file called the blockchain. Supporters of the new method include Microsoft, the bitcoin exchange Coinbase and a variety of other bitcoin proponents who would like to see the currency used more widely in commerce.

But this bitcoin software update doesn't have unanimous support.

What Happens on July 31?

The reformers say they've run out of patience and have set a deadline for moving to the new system.

At 8 p.m. Eastern time on July 31, they're threatening to stop recognizing transactions confirmed by miners who haven't adopted the upgrade. That would create enormous uncertainty in the bitcoin economy, as no one could really know if the bitcoin they'd just paid (or received) was actually moving through the system the way it's supposed to.

Some big bitcoin miners -- like Chinese bitcoin mining equipment giant Bitmain -- haven't signaled support for the new system. A rift could result in two or even more incompatible versions of bitcoin.

What Would That Mean?

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