Given Bitcoin's decentralized nature, tracking all its developments can be quite challenging. Nevertheless, certain fresh solutions, alongside those already familiar, have garnered more attention this year compared to others. Let's take a quick look at a few of them.
To gain a better grasp of Bitcoin technology, let's recall that Bitcoin constitutes a protocol, blockchain, and network with its native asset – bitcoin (BTC). Therefore, discussions regarding Bitcoin technology also encompass solutions that enhance the efficiency of this blockchain and introduce novel features. This article aims to shed light on precisely that. (It's important to note that significant technological advancements are also occurring within the Bitcoin mining sector and the operation of nodes – two vital components of the Bitcoin network deserving of a separate article.)
If you're not well-versed in tech matters, fret not – this overview offers a high-level insight without delving into overly complex technical intricacies.
The Ordinals protocol – what is it and why is it important?
This has arguably been the most debated topic in the Bitcoin world during the first quarter of this year. Introduced in January 2023, the Ordinals protocol has simplified and made uploading arbitrary data onto the Bitcoin blockchain more cost-effective. Among the many file types that can be uploaded to the blockchain, pictures are just one example, creating what is known as an inscription. Text files, videos, PDFs, and even the Doom video game are among the other types of files that can be found. This endows these files with censorship-resistant properties, making them nearly impossible to remove from what is arguably the most secure and decentralized database in the world.
The Ordinals protocol has also catalyzed other developments, including the BRC-20 (Bitcoin Request for Comment) token standard, which essentially permits the issuance of fungible tokens on the Bitcoin blockchain. This signifies that Bitcoin is now trying to evolve into a home for thousands of tokens, much like Ethereum harbors a multitude of tokens issued on its blockchain – the second largest by market capitalization.
As enticing as these advancements may appear, they have sparked substantial controversy and divided the Bitcoin community, at least the faction that is visible on social media. The ongoing debate revolves around whether these new possibilities will ultimately harm or enhance Bitcoin, its decentralization, and the goal of becoming the best form of money.
Transactions enabled by the Ordinals protocol are now vying for space with financial transaction data that is conventionally stored on the blockchain. As the demand for this space grows, so do the fees for Bitcoin users. However, this simultaneously boosts revenues for Bitcoin miners, who play a pivotal role in fortifying the network's security. Regardless, it is estimated that it will take at least a couple of years before the true impact of the Ordinals protocol becomes evident. Meanwhile, new solutions are emerging that are making the process of uploading such data more efficient and cost-effective. Furthermore, increased fees and extended transaction times contribute to the adoption of alternative Bitcoin scaling solutions, which are elaborated upon in the following sections.
Layer 2s Help Bitcoin Scale, Get New Features, and Compete
The Lightning Network
In a manner akin to conventional fiat currency transactions (US dollar, euro, etc.), Bitcoin is advancing its scalability through the implementation of technological layers. To illustrate, a standard banking payment card can be likened to a layer-2 (L2) technology, facilitating almost instant transactions between buyers and sellers, even if the funds take a few days to reach the seller's account. Consequently, a transaction between the buyer's and seller's accounts could be categorized as a layer-1 operation, which, in the context of Bitcoin, pertains to the base protocol.
For instance, while the base layer protocol can process 7-10 transactions per second, its most renowned L2 technology, the Lightning Network (LN), boasts an estimated capacity to manage up to 1 million transactions per second, nearly free of charge (at least for the time being). In contrast, the traditional payment heavyweight Visa claims it can handle approximately 24,000 payments per second.
While the Lightning Network has been operational and evolving for half a decade, this year has brought forth new developments poised to enhance user experience and extend new opportunities to developers.
In May, Lightning Labs (LL), the driving force behind LN, introduced a solution that propels the network closer to its aspiration of becoming a versatile, multi-asset network. Consequently, there are prospects of stablecoins, designed to mitigate price volatility within the cryptocurrency realm, finding support within LN. This potential integration could further elevate the practicality of Bitcoin. Nevertheless, as is customary within the realm of Bitcoin, debate abounds regarding whether this development truly benefits Bitcoin and its potential impact on security and decentralization.
Furthermore, a distinct AI-related narrative has also started to emerge. LL released a toolkit for developers engaged in AI projects and seeking to incorporate BTC payments in July. The notion gaining traction is that BTC on the Lightning Network represents the optimal solution for facilitating payments between AI platforms. The rationale behind this notion stems from BTC's affordability, speed, accessibility to a wider audience compared to conventional payment solutions, and ease of implementation.
However, simultaneously, this year has witnessed an intensified debate questioning whether LN stands as the most effective Bitcoin scaling solution. Regardless, there remains a prevailing consensus that this pathway is the most promising.
Nevertheless, amidst these developments, alternative options to LN continue to surface. One such contender is the Ark Protocol, a nascent solution that has yet to be launched. Its objectives encompass enhancing privacy, scalability, and user experience when compared to LN. Although it has garnered significant attention within Bitcoin circles, its actual viability remains uncertain.
While both LN and Ark primarily focus on facilitating BTC payments, various other L2 solutions are striving to introduce novel functionalities to the Bitcoin ecosystem.
A fresh scaling solution has been proposed by a team of developers who are engaged in crafting what they refer to as Rollkit rollups. Rollups serve as a methodology utilized to scale diverse blockchains.
Inspired by the Ordinals protocol, the Rollkit team is pioneering the implementation of rollups within the realm of Bitcoin. Essentially, rollups involve conducting essential computations external to the core blockchain, subsequently integrating the finalized data into the base blockchain, thereby optimizing the overall process. The Rollkit team asserts that their approach holds the potential to enable the deployment of smart contracts – self-executing programs – on the Bitcoin platform while also facilitating scalability and customization of the blockchain. Consequently, these innovations can potentially position Bitcoin, renowned for its exceptional decentralization and security, in direct rivalry with other blockchains, notably Ethereum.
Similarly to rollups, an alternative method to enhance Bitcoin's scalability emerges through what are known as sidechains. These sidechains operate as parallel blockchains that utilize BTC as their intrinsic asset, ushering in novel possibilities for Bitcoin users and the broader ecosystem.
Over the course of this year, a notable debate surrounding a specific type of sidechain, Drivechain, has witnessed somewhat heightened engagement and appears to be garnering broader support. Advocates of this solution posit that its successful implementation would render other blockchains and their native tokens obsolete. Essentially, every feature that other blockchains offer could potentially find a home within the Bitcoin ecosystem, resulting in increased revenues for miners as well. However, the central point of contention regarding Drivechain revolves around potential mining-related risks. Some apprehensions center on the notion that this approach might compromise the security of Bitcoin's primary chain, alongside other potential yet undiscovered hazards.
Another factor poised to bolster Bitcoin adoption and pave the way for innovative use cases is Miniscript. This simplified programming language is experiencing a growing presence and is contributing to the ease and safety of developing Bitcoin-related applications.
Now, you might be wondering why this should matter if you're not a developer. Well, thanks to Miniscript, we could witness a surge in solutions designed to enhance the management of BTC holdings, rendering it more secure and customizable – benefiting both individual users and companies. For instance, Miniscript could usher in heightened flexibility when configuring multi-signature setups, where transactions necessitate more than one signature for confirmation, tailored precisely to your preferences. Additionally, it could play a pivotal role in BTC inheritance planning, fortifying the safeguarding and security of your holdings. It could even serve as a bulwark against potential hacks or physical attacks. Imagine a scenario where you instantly send your BTC to an address inaccessible for a designated period – rendering any potential attacker empty-handed.
Tech Challenges and Key Principles
The overall potential of Bitcoin remains to be fully comprehended. Through novel technical solutions, Bitcoin could potentially achieve faster scalability, enhance user experiences, and introduce unexplored use cases. Nonetheless, while these new solutions hold promise, they may also usher in new risks. Consequently, the decentralized realm of Bitcoin must meticulously assess all the advantages, drawbacks, and potential hazards.
Therefore, as noted by Bitcoin educator Andreas M. Antonopoulos, the developers tasked with scaling and growing Bitcoin must “preserve the important principles of openness, neutrality, censorship resistance, and decentralization.”
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