Few would argue that Bitcoin today closely reflects the vision Satoshi Nakamoto, its pseudonymous creator, presented in their white paper exactly 15 years ago.
Yes, the broad strokes remain relevant. Bitcoin is still a proof-of-work blockchain that relies on consensus between nodes to operate properly.
But the pitch made in the 2008 white paper — bitcoin as a form of digital cash — has evolved and expanded over time. Some now look to bitcoin as more of a reserve asset, akin to a digital form of gold.
But a framework for digital cash, without the need to trust a central intermediary or administrator, was at the heart of Nakamoto’s initial proposal:
“What is needed is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust,
allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted
third party. Transactions that are computationally impractical to reverse would protect sellers
from fraud, and routine escrow mechanisms could easily be implemented to protect buyers,” Nakamoto wrote in the white paper.
Read more: Bitcoin white paper turns 15 years old
But what Bitcoin would ultimately become, and how it was perceived by those who used it and invested in it, began to take shape in the first years since the white paper’s publication.
Mining pools and hardware
The advent of mining pools was arguably one of the first notable departures from the blueprint laid out by the white paper.
Satoshi originally intended for individuals to be able to use their personal computers to mine bitcoin. This remained technically true, but over time, bitcoin mining grew to center around one defining principle: scale.
Satoshi’s original conception ensured that anyone could participate in the validation and security of the network without needing specialized equipment, thus making the ecosystem more inclusive and resistant to central control. The rise of mining pools and advanced mining hardware shifted the dynamics, leading to increased centralization.
“The proof-of-work also solves the problem of determining representation in majority decision making. If the majority were based on one-IP-address-one-vote, it could be subverted by anyone able to allocate many IPs. Proof-of-work is essentially one-CPU-one-vote.” Nakamoto wrote.
The first mining pool, initially dubbed bitcoin.cz and later renamed to Slush Pool, was created by Marek “Slush” Palatinus in 2010 to address the fact that people were beginning to use GPUs instead of CPUs to mine bitcoin. Mining pools were supposed to aid the solo miner in finding blocks, even if they didn’t have access to a high powered gaming computer.
GPU mining continued to take off throughout the early 2010’s until Canaan Creative released the world’s first set of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for bitcoin mining.
ASICs continued getting more and more efficient throughout the years, which drove the cost of these specialized devices up into the tens of thousands of dollars. Plus, powering them requires massive amounts of electricity. This effectively made bitcoin mining completely unprofitable for at-home solo miners.
Now, large corporations dominate what has become a commodities production industry — albeit, entirely digital.
Bitcoin improvement proposals
Discounting the wholly different dynamics of mining, the very mechanics of the Bitcoin network have also changed in the last 10 or so years.
In 2012, the Bitcoin network introduced Pay to Script Hash (P2SH) through BIP 16 to simplify multi-signature transactions. Before P2SH, multi-signature transactions were cumbersome and risk-prone, requiring the entire redeem script—defining spending conditions—to be revealed upfront.
With P2SH, users send funds to a standardized Bitcoin address representing a hash of the redeem script, concealing its complexity. Only when spending the coins is the full script disclosed and its conditions met, which was meant to streamline transactions, enhance user-friendliness and improve scalability.
Segregated Witness, also known as SegWit, was another significantly important bitcoin improvement proposal (BIP) that became effective in 2017. It addressed transaction malleability and effectively raised the block size limit from the original 1MB to 4MB.
SegWit opened the door for a 2021 proposal called Taproot. Taproot made transactions more efficient and private, while also allowing users to engage in more complex transaction types.
Exchanges, ETFs and traditional instruments
The trading market for bitcoin has also become far more complicated over the years, with companies offering a variety of products.
The possibility of large institutions offering bitcoin-associated financial products didn’t come up in the white paper. Nakamoto’s intention was for bitcoin to act as an alternative, decentralized method of exchange, likely not as a means for traditional investors to make money.
Not to mention, the concept of buying something like a bitcoin ETF inherently means the user is giving custody of their funds over to large financial institutions instead of holding bitcoin on their own.
Nakamoto’s distrust of banks was elucidated in the first two sentences of the white paper.
“Commerce on the Internet has come to rely almost exclusively on financial institutions serving as trusted third parties to process electronic payments. While the system works well enough for most transactions, it still suffers from the inherent weaknesses of the trust based model,” Nakamoto wrote.
Last week’s spot bitcoin ETF speculation was arguably evidence that, despite Satoshi’s apparent wishes to the contrary, segments of the crypto ecosystem are eager for some connection to that trust model. Bitcoin’s (BTC) price rose sharply on speculation that a bitcoin ETF was nearing approval.
Though spot bitcoin ETFs are not allowed in the US at this time, Europe saw the launch of its first one in August 2023.
Bitcoin futures ETFs have already been allowed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, with ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF (BITO) becoming the first to go live in October 2021.
DeFi, Ordinals, and more
Enter DeFi with Bitcoin Ordinals — an attempt to merge a more archaic blockchain with an Ethereum-like appetite for digital collectibles or NFTs.
Though, it’s impossible to discuss Ordinals without mentioning its precursor, Counterparty. The protocol launched in 2014 on Bitcoin and allowed people to exchange rare digital collectibles long before the NFT boom of 2021. Rare Pepe, an NFT collection inspired by the Pepe the Frog meme, originated on Counterparty.
Of course, non-fungible tokens weren’t around at the inception of Bitcoin. However, the 2021 Taproot upgrade, which allowed for much faster verification of multi-signature transactions, opened the door to inscribing text, images, SVGs and HTML on the smallest denomination of bitcoin, known as a satoshi (Sat).
Ordinals have seen significant success. On May 1 of this year, Ordinals contributed to Bitcoin’s largest number of transactions in a single day up to that point.
That record — over 682,000 — was later broken in September 2023 with over 703,000 transactions on Sept. 15, 2023, with Ordinal inscriptions reaching new peaks simultaneously.
When bitcoin was in its infancy in 2009 and 2010, less than 1,000 transactions on average were processed a day. By 2011 and 2012, transactions were often in the single-digit thousands.
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