Using Ethereum’s “Turing complete” smart contract language, Solidity, developers are able to deploy a set of instructions to the blockchain that operate indefinitely with a high degree of finality and fraud-resistance. With the first block being mined in July 2015, Ethereum has since become the largest smart contract platform of its kind, and the second largest blockchain of all time as measured by market capitalization.
While it’s still early days, Mist, MetaMask and a variety of other browsers look set to make blockchain-based applications accessible to more people than ever before. Even people without a technical background can now potentially build blockchain apps. This is a revolutionary leap for blockchain technology that could bring decentralized applications into the mainstream.
Ethereum addresses are composed of the prefix "0x", a common identifier for hexadecimal, concatenated with the rightmost 20 bytes of the Keccak-256 hash (big endian) of the ECDSA public key (the curve used is the so called secp256k1, the same as Bitcoin). In hexadecimal, 2 digits represents a byte, meaning addresses contain 40 hexadecimal digits. An example of an Ethereum address is 0xb794F5eA0ba39494cE839613fffBA74279579268. Contract addresses are in the same format, however they are determined by sender and creation transaction nonce. User accounts are indistinguishable from contract accounts given only an address for each and no blockchain data. Any valid Keccak-256 hash put into the described format is valid, even if it does not correspond to an account with a private key or a contract. This is unlike Bitcoin, which uses base58check to ensure that addresses are properly typed.
Cryptocurrencies' blockchains are secure, but other aspects of a cryptocurrency ecosystem are not immune to the threat of hacking. In Bitcoin's 10-year history, several online exchanges have been the subject of hacking and theft, sometimes with millions of dollars worth of 'coins' stolen. Still, many observers look at cryptocurrencies as hope that a currency can exist that preserves value, facilitates exchange, is more transportable than hard metals, and is outside the influence of central banks and governments.
Izabella Kaminska, the editor of FT Alphaville, has pointed out that criminals are using Ethereum to run Ponzi schemes and other forms of investment fraud. The article was based on a paper from the University of Cagliari, which placed the number of Ethereum smart contracts which facilitate Ponzi schemes at nearly 10% of 1384 smart contracts examined. However, it also estimated that only 0.05% of the transactions on the network were related to such contracts.