One of Bitcoin’s most appealing features is its ruthless verification process, which greatly minimizes the risk of fraud. Since Bitcoin is decentralized, volunteers—referred to as “miners”—constantly verify and update the blockchain. Once a specific amount of transactions are verified, another block is added to the blockchain and business continues per usual.
To be accepted by the rest of the network, a new block must contain a so-called proof-of-work (PoW). The system used is based on Adam Back's 1997 anti-spam scheme, Hashcash. The PoW requires miners to find a number called a nonce, such that when the block content is hashed along with the nonce, the result is numerically smaller than the network's difficulty target.:ch. 8 This proof is easy for any node in the network to verify, but extremely time-consuming to generate, as for a secure cryptographic hash, miners must try many different nonce values (usually the sequence of tested values is the ascending natural numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, ...:ch. 8) before meeting the difficulty target.
Third-party internet services called online wallets offer similar functionality but may be easier to use. In this case, credentials to access funds are stored with the online wallet provider rather than on the user's hardware. As a result, the user must have complete trust in the wallet provider. A malicious provider or a breach in server security may cause entrusted bitcoins to be stolen. An example of such a security breach occurred with Mt. Gox in 2011. This has led to the often-repeated meme "Not your keys, not your bitcoin".
Every 2,016 blocks (approximately 14 days at roughly 10 min per block), the difficulty target is adjusted based on the network's recent performance, with the aim of keeping the average time between new blocks at ten minutes. In this way the system automatically adapts to the total amount of mining power on the network.:ch. 8 Between 1 March 2014 and 1 March 2015, the average number of nonces miners had to try before creating a new block increased from 16.4 quintillion to 200.5 quintillion.
This is particularly problematic once you remember that all Bitcoin transactions are permanent and irreversible. It's like dealing with cash: Any transaction carried out with bitcoins can only be reversed if the person who has received them refunds them. There is no third party or a payment processor, as in the case of a debit or credit card – hence, no source of protection or appeal if there is a problem.
Recall that unique addresses are a proxy for the number of users, because they indicate how many non-zero Bitcoin addresses are in use. This metric has its strengths and weaknesses, which I wrote about here. Also, I have reviewed several other pricing methods which attempt to do the same thing using Metcalfe's Law. You can find those here and here.
^ Jump up to: a b c d "Statement of Jennifer Shasky Calvery, Director Financial Crimes Enforcement Network United States Department of the Treasury Before the United States Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on National Security and International Trade and Finance Subcommittee on Economic Policy" (PDF). fincen.gov. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. 19 November 2013. Archived (PDF) from the original on 9 October 2016. Retrieved 1 June 2014.
Another interesting way (literally) to earn bitcoins is by lending them out, and being repaid in the currency. Lending can take three forms – direct lending to someone you know; through a website which facilitates peer-to-peer transactions, pairing borrowers and lenders; or depositing bitcoins in a virtual bank that offers a certain interest rate for Bitcoin accounts. Some such sites are Bitbond, BitLendingClub and BTCjam. Obviously, you should do due diligence on any third-party site.