By Dr. James M. Dahle, WCI Founder
What is the top cryptocurrency?
The popularity of a cryptocurrency can be measured in many ways, such as how frequently it trades, how many people own it, or how many transactions for which it is used.
However, the most commonly used measurement is simply market capitalization. You can calculate the capitalization of a cryptocurrency by multiplying the price of a coin by the number of coins in circulation.
As of November 2021, the market capitalization of the biggest cryptocurrencies by market cap is as follows (hat tip to the Statistics and data YouTube channel):
Note that this lineup changes frequently. Consider a similar chart from 2017:
Notice that only two of the top-10 in 2017 were still in the top-10 in 2021. This nice YouTube video shows how market caps have changed over the years as the various cryptocurrencies have waxed and waned in popularity.
Pros and Cons of Top Cryptocurrencies
Let's discuss the specifics—the pluses and minuses—of some of the cryptocurrencies that were most popular by the end of 2021.
Bitcoin is widely considered to be the grandfather of cryptocurrency. It has been around the longest and has enough name recognition that it is the only cryptocurrency that the majority of people know about. Although there were some preceding technologies, Bitcoin itself was invented in the fall of 2008. The white paper was published on Halloween 2008 by the mythical Satoshi Nakamoto. Nobody is 100% sure who Satoshi is, but leading candidates include:
- Craig Steven White, an Australian computer scientist
- Hal Finney, a pioneering cryptographer and California developer who received the first Bitcoin transaction
- Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, a neighbor of Hal Finney's, this Californian of Japanese descent was a systems and computer engineer
- Nick Szabo, a cryptocurrency enthusiast who published a paper on Bit Gold, a bitcoin precursor, and was known to love pseudonyms
Bitcoin is a deflationary currency in that the protocol only allows a total of 21 million Bitcoins to be mined. As of 2021, almost 19 million have been mined. In addition, of those 19 million, approximately 4 million have already been lost. The concept of scarcity is critical to propping up the value of Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is considered a “first-generation cryptocurrency.” It is slow and energy-intensive to mine and transact, and its blockchain is not compatible with smart contracts. Bitcoin can process up to seven transactions per second, and it takes about 15 minutes for confirmation. Bitcoin already uses as much energy as the entire country of Austria for the limited transactions it does conduct. Bitcoin is an excellent example of the value of name-brand recognition and first-mover advantage. Despite its numerous weaknesses compared to other cryptocurrencies, it has persisted as the top cryptocurrency by market capitalization for more than a decade.
That does not mean it will be on top forever, of course. Its advantage has decreased over the years, leading many (including me) to conclude that Bitcoin is to cryptocurrency what AOL was to the internet. We all started with AOL in the mid-1990s, but by 2010, nobody but grandmas were using it. By 202o, it was out of business. Its market cap was $222 billion in 1999, but it was sold by Verizon to Apollo in 2021 (along with Yahoo) for just $5 billion for both companies. There are plenty of people out there who disagree with me, though, and believe the advantages of Bitcoin will persist and that it will remain on top. Only time will tell, but a recent upgrade (Taproot) should help with some of its issues, even if critics argue that the upgrade should have been done years before.
Certainly, the use case for Bitcoin has narrowed severely over the years. Originally, it was supposed to take over the world and be used for day-to-day transactions. Even its most ardent fans now agree its non-speculative uses are likely limited to being a quite volatile store of value and/or a hedge against a meltdown of the traditional financial system.
Conceived in 2013, as documented in its white paper by Vitalik Buterik, it went live in mid-2015. Ethereum (aka ether) is known as the quintessential second-generation cryptocurrency, and its name-brand recognition as such has kept it in place as the second cryptocurrency by market capitalization since early 2016. Technically, Ether is the currency and Ethereum is the network. Its claim to fame is the use of smart contracts. Other cryptocurrencies (as well as 3,000+ dApps) use its blockchain. Ethereum is a nonprofit enterprise. It is not technically a deflationary currency like Bitcoin although several changes have been made to prevent the possibility of an infinite amount of ether. It has been criticized for problems with its security and scalability.
More recently, transaction costs on the network have gone through the roof. Like Bitcoin, it is relatively energy-intensive. A single Ethereum transaction uses more energy than a typical US household uses in a week. An easier comparison is that one Ethereum transaction has a carbon footprint equivalent to 141,000 VISA transactions. It is also relatively slow compared to newer cryptocurrencies. Its blockchain can handle 13 transactions per second and the confirmation time is about five minutes.
Ethereum is trying to move from a proof-of-work model to a proof-of-stake model.
Cardano is the network; ADA is the currency. It was founded in 2015 by Charles Hoskinson, one of the founders of Ethereum, and is currently run by the Cardano Foundation in Switzerland. Hoskinson left the Ethereum project after a dispute with Buterik when Ethereum became a nonprofit. Considered a third-generation cryptocurrency, the claim to fame for Cardano is that it is the largest cryptocurrency that uses proof-of-stake technology, making it dramatically less energy-intensive than proof-of-work currencies such as Bitcoin and (for now) Ethereum. The Cardano network uses less than 0.01% of the energy used by the Bitcoin network. It allows smart contracts and dApps on its network. Cardano can do 250 transactions per second and has a confirmation time of about two minutes, although technically, confirmation is not final for some period of time after that.
Cardano has been criticized for high transaction costs and relatively slow speed.
Binance Coin (BNB)
Binance is the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world; Binance Coin is its own coin. Here's the original white paper. The exchange was founded in 2017 by Changpeng Zhao in China, but it subsequently moved to Japan and then the Cayman Islands. Binance Coin began in 2017, and it can be used to pay (discounted up to 50%) exchange fees on the Binance exchange. Binance has been banned in the US, the UK, Japan, and Thailand due to regulatory issues. However, the company has started Binance.US, which will apparently comply with US regulations. The exchange has had at least one serious hack.
Binance Coin originally ran on the Ethereum blockchain but has moved to Binance's own blockchain, the Binance Smart Chain. Binance has announced that it plans to buy and burn Binance Coin until there are only 100,000 of them, making it a somewhat deflationary currency and, hopefully, boosting its value. Binance uses proof-of-stake technology, so it is much less energy-intensive than Bitcoin, but it's nowhere near the leader in this regard. BNB can handle 1.4 million transactions per second, though confirmation takes hours for some reason. BNB's main claim to fame is that you can actually use it, paying fees on the Binance exchange and actually booking hotels and flights with it.
Tether is the largest stablecoin by market capitalization. Stablecoins solve a major problem with cryptocurrency—the ridiculous volatility that keeps it from being used as an effective medium of exchange and a store of value. It is tied (aka tethered) to the value of the dollar. Its origin is Mastercoin, described in a 2012 white paper, from which it derives its protocol. Originally named Realcoin when it launched in 2014, it is controlled by the crypto exchange Bitfinex in Hong Kong. There are actually three currencies—one tied to the dollar, one tied to the Euro, and one tied to the yen. It was originally on the Bitcoin blockchain, but it's now on the Ethereum and five or six other blockchains—including Solana, notable for its speed.
Tether got into some trouble, because for years it announced that every Tether coin was backed by a dollar. It turned out that was not actually true. It may only be backed with $0.74 of cash or cash equivalents, such as commercial paper. Tether has had legal issues with the New York Attorney General's office (resulting in an $18.5 million settlement/fine) as well as the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission ($41 million fine). Tether coins are not mined; they are merely minted by Tether/Bitfinex. It's been accused of “printing tethers,” and there is some controversy as to how many dollars actually back it. Tether is no longer even allowed to do business in New York state, the capital of the financial world, as part of its settlement.
Uses of stablecoins like Tether are to compete with businesses like Paypal and Venmo, to store value between cryptocurrency trades, and to facilitate margin trading. Tether's speed and energy consumption depend on the blockchain being used, but the biggest criticisms of the cryptocurrency are its lack of transparency, probable lack of adequate underlying assets, and the potential effects of its failure on the cryptocurrency and non-cryptocurrency markets.
Ripple is the company, XRP is the cryptocurrency. Ripple was founded as Opencoin in 2012 before becoming Ripple Labs and eventually Ripple. It was once fined by New York for acting as a money services business without approval but is now approved there. The SEC has also charged its executives with violating investor protection laws, and one board member resigned after being charged with a range of cybercrimes. At one point, XRP was the second-largest cryptocurrency by market cap, but it has since fallen to seventh. It does not use a proof-of-work or proof-of-stake system and instead relies on a consensus protocol to confirm transactions. It is made when Ripple sells more of it.
XRP is actually aimed at banks and payment systems, not individual users. Think of it as a currency to use instead of dollars when exchanging foreign currencies. XRP is faster and cheaper than using dollars for this purpose. Don't expect very many places to spend it as a consumer, though. XRP can do 1,500 transactions per second and settles after just 3-5 seconds. It is also considered to be perhaps the most energy-efficient cryptocurrency.
Solana is the blockchain, and SOL is the currency. Solana was described in a 2017 white paper by Anatoly Yakovenko. It was launched in 2018 and is still technically in beta. Solana is public and open-source, and SOL is considered a third-generation cryptocurrency. Its claim to fame is its speed due to combining proof-of-history with proof-of-state technology. It can handle 50,000 transactions per second, and so, it's thought to be much more scalable than most cryptocurrencies. By comparison, VISA does about 1,700 per second (although it has more capability). It is compatible with smart contracts, and it has very low fees. Sounds promising right? Too bad you didn't know about it a year or two ago. Look at this chart.
You basically could have 240X'd your investment in a year. Makes Bitcoin volatility look downright tame, right? Its energy efficiency should also rival XRP and Cardano. It is hard to find too much bad to say about Solana, but critics point out it is not as decentralized as some cryptocurrencies. In September 2021, it suffered a Denial of Service (DOS) attack that resulted in a fair bit of criticism, but its biggest scandal was when a wallet with 11 million SOL was found (it seemed to be from a loan to Binance). The SOL in the wallet was later burned (i.e. eliminated electronically). Solana is just so new, and the new technologies it has implemented seem radical.
Litecoin is not currently in the top-15 cryptocurrencies by market capitalization, although it was once the second largest. Litecoin was considered the “digital silver” to Bitcoin's “digital gold.” Needless to say, it did not turn out to last as long as silver has. As a first-generation cryptocurrency launched in 2011, it uses Bitcoin source code. It is mined like Bitcoin, and it was actually faster than Bitcoin. But that did not seem to matter to the markets. Litecoin seems to rapidly be on its way to obsolescence. It still has plenty of market capitalization, but it has not been growing like so many of those in the current top-10. While clearly better than Bitcoin, it just never had the name or that first-mover advantage.
Polkadot is a protocol invented by one of the Ethereum founders, Gavin Wood, and DOT is its native currency. Its technological breakthrough is the ability to transfer data from one blockchain to another by use of parachains and bridges. It relies on proof of stake. It is unclear if there will be a limited amount of DOT. The main problem with DOT these days is you can't actually trade it. It has been frozen since the Initial Coin Offering. Here is the white paper. It can process 1,000 transactions per second and also has low energy consumption thanks to using proof of stake.
Dogecoin is the classic meme coin. It was originally created as a joke by Billy Markus and Jackson Palmer in 2013, but it has taken on a life of its own and has its own viable community backing it. Markus and Palmer were just making fun of all the cryptocurrency speculation at the time (which has continued for years afterward). Palmer has actually left the cryptocurrency completely, believing the entire concept to be exploitative. TikTok and occasional tweets by Elon Musk have combined to keep Dogecoin in and out of the top-10 by market capitalization since 2013. Dogecoin has been used for tips, but mainly, it is just speculative and is considered the “fun and friendly” cryptocurrency. All the Dogecoin has been mined, although there is an increase each year (up to 5%), a rate of “inflation” that will decrease over time. It can do 70 transactions per second and does not use all that much energy. I just find it hilarious that the joke coin is so much better than the current king of the hill.
USD Coin (USDC)
USD Coin, launched in 2018, is the second most popular stablecoin by market capitalization. Here's the white paper. It runs on a handful of blockchains include Ethereum and Solana. It's run by a consortium, including Coinbase exchange, and it states it keeps a dollar or a dollar's worth of other approved investments in reserves for every coin it issues. VISA actually accepts USDC to settle debts. Its big advantage over Tether is that it plays nice with regulators and auditors. Plus, it has Coinbase endorsing it. It has also managed to avoid the scandals Tether has suffered through. Its only criticisms are inherent to the very idea of stablecoins—its value is controlled by a central government, and when you swap them for dollars, you have to show your identity.
Shiba Inu (SHIB)
If you like Dogecoin, you're going to love Shiba Inu, a joke of a joke. The dog on the Dogecoin symbol is a Shiba Inu and Elon Musk bought one (a dog, but probably some coins too) and occasionally tweets pictures of it, driving the Shiba Inu coin community to a frenzy. The coin was created by “Ryoshi” in 2020, calling itself the “Dogecoin killer,” and it has been criticized as a pump and dump scheme (duh). It made 14 million percent in its first 15 months. That seems sustainable, right? Like Dogecoin, this memecoin says a lot about the cryptomarkets just by its existence and rise.
Just like a company in the dot.com era would go up in value simply by adding “.com” to its name, some people will buy any cryptocurrency that appears and goes up. It has done some good, though. Most famously, Vitalik Buterin used it to donate $1 billion to an Indian COVID relief fund. But one cannot help but think it must be headed for a Litecoin-like 93% drop or an XRP-like 96% drop soon. Crystal ball is so cloudy.
Avalanche is the prototypical fourth-generation cryptocurrency. It was started in 2018 and launched in 2020. It is open-source and uses proof of stake. It has an even faster consensus protocol, processing 6,500 transactions per second. Remember that VISA does about 1,700 per second, but it can do 24,000 per second. It is criticized for still being mostly theoretical.
So, should you buy a cryptocurrency based on its popularity and market cap? Probably not. I've already argued that Bitcoin won't be the king of the cryptos in the future, and as the video above clearly shows, what's popular today probably won't be the crypto that's popular in five years (even from September 2021 to November 2021, there was plenty of shuffling in the top-10). I don't invest in cryptocurrency, and I'm not planning to do so. If you want to invest a little bit of play-money into this speculation, have at it. But don't count on Bitcoin or Etherium staying at the top forever. In fact, it seems probable to me that the big winner in crypto, the one that will be most popular (like the Google of the search engines), hasn't even been invented yet.
What's your favorite cryptocurrency? Have you invested in a once-popular crypto that now is out of the top-10? Which crypto do you think is going to win the day? Comment below!