On November 28, 2017, the price of one bitcoin hit the magical figure of $10,000. At the time, it seemed ridiculous; Bitcoin was this weird internet money that wasn’t quite money and that cost a couple hundred dollars per coin just a year ago.
The second most popular cryptocurrency at the time, Ethereum, had an even crazier run: from about 10 bucks early in the year to $480. Both cryptocurrencies then continued to rally before crashing far below those levels in 2018.
Now, Bitcoin is once again on the brink of reaching $10,000, and Ethereum is very near $300, for the first time in nearly a year.
In some ways, this bull run — and it’s definitely a bull run at this point — is very different from the last one. The market has matured; institutional investors have more avenues to invest in cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin has solved some of the issues that plagued it in 2017; Ethereum is on the way to a total overhaul of its core technology, which may launch as soon as late 2019.
A familiar run
But price-wise, it’s amazing how closely the current situation resembles the one in late 2017. It took three months for the price of Bitcoin to rise from $3,000 to $10,000. Right now, the price of Bitcoin is $9,791 according to CoinMarketCap. Three months ago, it was $4,083, and just four months ago, it was at $3,393.
Just like in 2017, trading was choppy, with the prices sometimes dropping by more than $1,000 in a matter of days. But the bearish periods were short, and the price recovered quickly. Ethereum’s growth has been a little less explosive than in 2017, but largely followed a similar pattern. Right now, the price of Ethereum is $286.
The $10,000 and the $300 price levels for Bitcoin and Ethereum, respectively, are important psychological barriers, and not only because they’re nice and round. Last time, those levels were when the “cab driver” effect was in full swing: Everyone was talking about Bitcoin; Coinbase was adding hundreds of thousands of users on a weekly basis. People who’d never even considered stocks were suddenly stocking up on Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies.
Another important mark has been reached on Friday: The collective market cap of all cryptocurrencies surpassed $300 billion again, according to CoinMarketCap. This hasn’t happened in exactly one year.
In it for the tech? Good.
I’ve taken a look at the developments on the market this May, and things remained largely unchanged since then. Same warning applies: Just because Bitcoin once went crazy and surged a hundred percent after it had hit $10,000, doesn’t mean it’ll happen again.
But it’s a good moment to take a step back and look at how the technology has evolved since 2017.
Bitcoin’s core developers have stayed true to their mantra of doing things slowly but surely, with the system’s security being the highest priority. As a result, Bitcoin has kept its security record pristine (exchange hacks, scams and swindles of all sorts are another matter, but they aren’t Bitcoin’s fault). The block size debate that raged throughout 2017 has died down, partially due to an upgrade called SegWit, which alleviated the problem somewhat. A mobile app for Lightning Network, a promising scalability solution that’s been in development for years, was released as alpha software a few days ago. Technologies like Schnorr signatures and Taproot are being implemented right now, with the goal of increasing scalability and privacy.
Opponents will point at Bitcoin development being glacially slow, but Bitcoin has remained relevant by staying secure and not doing much. It hasn’t become a widely used payment solution, but it’s solidifying its position as digital gold; an asset that most investors buy because they expect for it to retain value, while at the same time considering it to be an anchor for some portion of the global financial system (the verdict on whether Bitcoin really is a good store of value is still out, and might not be settled for many more years).
Ethereum, a platform for decentralized apps, hasn’t fully solved its scalability issues, meaning that you still can’t run software with millions of daily active users on top of Ethereum. But Ethereum developers are hard at work on Ethereum 2.0, a major upgrade to the system which introduces a new, proof-of-stake consensus mechanism, which wastes far less energy than proof-of-work (used today by both Bitcoin and Ethereum), as well as sharding, a complex solution for making Ethereum more scalable.
In 2017, one of the main drivers for Ethereum’s growth was the initial coin offering or ICO, a way of crowdfunding a startup by selling blockchain tokens to investors. The ICOs are now largely gone, stifled by more stringent regulations, but they’ve been replaced by the IEO (initial exchange offering), which is essentially the same thing, only organized and vetted by a cryptocurrency exchange. The success of some recent IEOs, especially those ran by Binance, have added a new wave of optimism to the space.
Then there’s the white-and-blue elephant in the room. Days ago, Facebook, together with a very strong list of partners, launched Libra, a new open-source blockchain that will host a non-volatile cryptocurrency of the same name. Libra will be integrated into Facebook products such as Messenger and WhatsApp via Calibra, a proprietary digital wallet from Facebook. With a launch date set for the first half of 2020, the Libra announcement sent strong ripples throughout the cryptocurrency industry, both as a threat and as a sign of potential mainstream adoption.
And all of this is just a tiny portion of what’s happening in the crypto space.
As always, cryptocurrency price movements appear to be decoupled from actual developments in the space, driven instead by speculation. But technological progress has been made, and governments, institutions and big tech companies appear far more interested in crypto now than they were two years ago. Let’s see how things unravel this time around.
Disclosure: The author of this text owns, or has recently owned, a number of cryptocurrencies, including BTC and ETH.