Ethereum Blockchain: Background and Use Cases
While Bitcoin’s innovative decentralized network and cryptocurrency was a groundbreaking achievement, Ethereum has expanded on its predecessor’s vision of a decentralized payments system building a global computer network that links users to a marketplace of decentralized applications (dApps) offering unprecedented efficiency, security, and user control. Through its ground-breaking combination of features like smart contracts, Ethereum is used for a variety of innovative applications in finance, web browsing, gaming, advertising, identity management, and supply chain management.
The Ethereum blockchain is powered by its native cryptocurrency — ether (ETH) — and enables developers to create new types of ETH-based tokens that power dApps through the use of smart contracts. The most common ETH-based cryptocurrencies are built on the ERC-20 token standard. Ethereum smart contracts are self-executing contracts that facilitate, verify, and enforce transactions on the blockchain, and are a key innovation in Ethereum and blockchain.
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Ethereum’s permissionless blockchain — which allows for the creation and development of applications without oversight from a central authority — creates a space for experimentation. There have been thousands of dApps built on Ethereum, millions of users, and many billions of dollars generated. Let’s take a look at some of the major use cases that have arisen on Ethereum so far.
Decentralized Autonomous Organizations
An early use case unearthed by Ethereum developers, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) are blockchain-based organizations that operate without central authorities. They are governed by rules coded in software and administrative decisions are voted upon by a community of stakeholders. DAOs were one of the first innovations tested on Ethereum and remain influential today. While the hack of the pioneering Ethereum-based DAO in 2016 was a watershed moment in blockchain history, DAOs remain open-source and community-governed. Today, several DAOs, including MolochDAO and MetaCartel, operate in a similar fashion to the original DAO, pooling user funds to offer grants to Ethereum entrepreneurs.
Ethereum Token Launches
Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) are token sales that function similarly to the traditional Initial Public Offering (IPO). Ethereum-enabled startup fundraising played a huge role in the growth of blockchain and crypto throughout 2017 and 2018. While Ethereum’s use of crowdfunding to bolster its protocol’s development in 2014 was novel, token launches exploded during what is known as the ICO boom. This increase in funding for crypto startups presented a paradigm shift in the way innovative startups raise funds.
ICOs garnered significant mainstream attention for Ethereum and the broader cryptocurrency space, but not all positive. Amidst the frenzy, some ICOs were not well conceived, a few were outright scams, while others were unable to achieve their goals — less than half of ICOs survived four months after their initial token sale. However, many projects that raised funds through an ICO are thriving — like prediction market company Augur and privacy-centric web browser Brave.
Displaying its ability to support the blockchain industry as a whole, Ethereum is the mechanism by which large blockchain projects launch and raise money. For example, EOSIO initially launched its token sale on Ethereum before migrating the tokens to its own blockchain. These token launches played a huge role in turning blockchain into a global phenomenon.
Enterprise Ethereum refers to customized software and networks based on Ethereum that are created for private corporations and businesses. These networks are permissioned, meaning enterprise clients retain control over the architecture, the validators, and the users. The Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA) now has more than 200 member organizations including Samsung Group, J.P. Morgan, Mastercard, and Microsoft — all of whom are experimenting with private versions of Ethereum for enterprise purposes. J.P. Morgan and more than 300 banks use a version of Enterprise Ethereum to run an inter-bank payment network. The Covantis initiative, set up by a group of institutions in the commodity industry, uses Enterprise Ethereum to run a post-trade execution platform for agricultural shipping transactions. And, Microsoft and Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) adopted Enterprise Ethereum to build a tracking platform for luxury goods.
Non-Fungible Tokens on Ethereum
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are unique, indivisible, and provably scarce digital assets that are useful in gaming, art, and ensuring the provenance of luxury goods. Hype over NFTs began in late 2017 with the launch of CryptoKitties’ digital cat collectibles, but since then, the applications for the technology have grown rapidly. NFTs have attracted an increasingly mainstream audience to cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. The NBA, Ubisoft, and LVMH are experimenting with NFTs, as are other constituents.
Stablecoins are cryptocurrency tokens pegged to another asset, typically a fiat currency. For example, there are stablecoins backed by fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar and commodities like gold, while other stablecoins maintain their value algorithmically. Additionally, some stablecoins are backed by a balanced basket of major cryptocurrencies. Stablecoins are used as a reliable store of value in the cryptocurrency ecosystem, a hedge against price volatility for crypto traders, and as a stable, global currency for people whose local fiat currency is devalued due to economic or political instability. Today, many crypto exchanges have their own stablecoins.
Decentralized finance (DeFi) is the newest innovation to see an avalanche of use and growth on Ethereum. DeFi platforms are reinventing traditional financial products and services, adding programmable, decentralized, and censorship resistant features to create brand new financial products. For example, DeFi platforms offer peer-to-peer (P2P) borrowing and lending, interest on crypto holdings, decentralized exchange (DEX) mechanisms, stablecoins, and composable features that maximize passive earning opportunities. Popular DeFi platforms include Compound, MakerDAO, and Aave. In 2020, the total value locked in DeFi platforms eclipsed $4 billion.
A Breadth of Emerging Use Cases for Ethereum
There are myriad sectors in which Ethereum is providing utility and creating value. Industries from healthcare to entertainment to real estate are creating novel tools on the protocol to enhance efficiency, trust, and democratize access to various types of services.
For example, Ethereum provides an ideal solution for managing royalties in the music industry by distributing tokens that represent ownership rights that facilitate automated and seamless distribution of royalty payments. Ethereum projects working in the music industry include Ujo, Mediachain, and the Open Music Initiative.
In the massive global remittance industry, cross-border payments can be sent directly, quickly, and inexpensively by using a P2P protocol like Ethereum. For example, companies such as Everex, Abra, and BloomX use blockchain technology to cut out various intermediary banks that charge fees for currency exchange.
Ethereum’s tamper-proof blockchain-based ledger can assure supply chain and logistics managers about the provenance of products through verifiable blockchain-based cryptography. These businesses can track a product’s journey on the blockchain from the manufacturer to the checkout aisle, knowing that the data has not been tampered with. Meanwhile, end consumers can rest easy knowing that the products they purchase are in fact genuine. Everything from luxury goods to organic foods are tracked and traced with the Ethereum network.
Additionally, through use of cryptographic methods, Ethereum ensures secure information sharing, which is essential for the transfer of sensitive data like medical records and identity information. Finally, Ethereum tokens democratize access to products that were once beyond the reach of many. There are Ethereum-based startups offering fractional ownership — owning a piece of a good, rather than the whole — of luxury goods and real estate, allowing consumers to diversify their investments. For instance, Meridio offers fractional ownership shares of real estate, and 55.com allows you to own a share of a high-value streetwear product, such as a Supreme hoodie.
Ethereum is the network of choice for innovation in the blockchain and cryptocurrency space. With its flexibility and robustness, new applications continue to emerge and increased scalability in the future will continue to support development. From DAOs to Enterprise Ethereum to DeFi, the future of Ethereum looks more exciting than ever.