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Altcoins: Brave new world beyond Bitcoin

Bitcoin has gone from a little known and little understood technology to front-page news in the past year.

But just as Americans start to wrap their minds around Bitcoin, a slew of alternative virtual coins -- altcoins -- are waiting in the wings, hoping for their chance in the spotlight.

"Bitcoin is the standard bearer at this point," says Mark T. Williams, a master finance lecturer at Boston University who has been closely studying Bitcoin and other virtual currencies. "As (Bitcoin) tries to charge the hill, there are over 100 other virtual currencies right behind it, ready to pick up the flag and carry it to the top."

Questions about where these altcoins fit into the cryptocurrency landscape have been renewed in recent weeks after blows to Bitcoin's reputation, including news in February that Mt. Gox, one of the top Bitcoin exchanges, suddenly shut down and filed for bankruptcy.

"Virtual currencies will play an innovative role in the global economy, but (I'm) not sure that Bitcoin will win the race," Williams says.

Below is a rundown of the cryptocurrencies taking shape in the shadow of Bitcoin.

Altcoins: Smaller market caps

Go to CoinMarketCap.com, which tracks the price of all these cryptocurrencies, and you'll find coins like Litecoin and Peercoin and even Dogecoin, some of which have significant market capitalization. There are many more with decidedly smaller market caps.

"Other virtual currencies are … trading and seeing large price movements," Williams says. "They're all trading with this great speculation of which will be the next Bitcoin."

Some of the altcoins hope to provide real innovations to the cryptocurrency landscape, while others are mostly just copies meant to capitalize on the Bitcoin publicity. Some are created as jokes or to support a cause.

For instance, the TakeiCoin -- which features an image of Star Trek actor George Takei on its logo -- is set up so that coin transfers of the currency garner a small fee for human rights causes, according to its website.

Citi analyst Steven Englander said in a December research paper that Bitcoin's open-source nature creates an incentive for people to make alternative virtual currencies.

"Unlike fine art, Bitcoin can be replicated exactly or close to it," Englander wrote. "Say in response to overwhelming demand for Bitcoin, someone created Nitcoin with similar properties … and someone else … created Gitcoin that could be mined at a fraction of the cost.

"My conjecture is that we will see big speculative swings as different 'coins' are created and move in and out of fashion," Englander wrote.

Overtake Bitcoin?

Some experts say it would be difficult for any of these altcoins to overtake Bitcoin, at least in part because of Bitcoin's name recognition and its larger network of miners, merchants and investors.

"We believe the structure of the digital currency market is one of 'winner takes all,' whereby as Bitcoin becomes more popular and is easy to use, consumers will have much less incentive to experiment with an alternative currency with similar features," Bank of America analyst David Woo wrote in a December research note.

Andreas M. Antonopoulos, who broadcasts the "Let's Talk Bitcoin" podcast, compares Bitcoin to VHS. He says Betamax video recorders were better than VHS, but the latter was more widely adopted, and so it won out.

But not everyone agrees. Some say an altcoin will rise up as a better alternative while others say there is room for multiple currencies.

In light of recent attacks on Bitcoin that exploited a weakness in the cryptocurrency's core software, a few altcoin fans began touting their respective coins as safer than Bitcoin.

In one comment thread on Reddit, a social media and news website, a commenter notes that altcoin Quark takes only seconds to confirm transactions, unlike the 10 minutes for Bitcoin, narrowing the window for attackers to manipulate data.

"My gut tells me this is one of those events that could spell the end of Bitcoin, and we may see a mass exodus into altcoins, including QRK (Quark)," writes another reddit user.

New landscape takes shape

Alec Ross, former State Department senior adviser for innovation, says he's bullish on cryptocurrency, but says it's "entirely too early to say whether it's today's altcoin or tomorrow's altcoin" that will be widely adopted. He says he suspects it will be something that has yet to be invented.

"I view cryptocurrencies in 2013 and 2014 as search engines in the mid-'90s," Ross says, adding that he thinks most of the current altcoins will probably evaporate. "A lot of the cryptocurrencies that have begun to emerge, like Bitcoin, may or may not have staying power. Bitcoin may end up like (WebCrawler). But the category of cryptocurrency is here to stay."

No matter what happens to altcoins in the future, they serve an important purpose to the cryptocurrency landscape, Bitcoin podcaster Antonopoulos says.

He says competition from other virtual currencies could introduce important innovations that Bitcoin can "cherry-pick." And those features that Bitcoin can't co-opt? Those coins could create a smaller niche, he says.

As this all shakes out, consumers can expect to see volatility, with bubbles in prices and new altcoins popping up.

"The everyday consumer should probably be very cautious," says economist Peter Rodriguez, an associate professor at the University of Virginia.

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