Bitcoin is totally forked.
Or at least it will be soon, as two high-profile developers have announced plans to fork the code that undergirds the network.
The new fork — Bitcoin XT — can handle more transactions per hour but requires more memory to maintain a database of the blockchain. Its current backers are Mike Hearn and Gavin Andresen — two BTC senior developers. Andresen is the chief scientist of the Bitcoin Foundation; Hearn was once the chairman of the foundation’s law and policy committee.
“I feel sad that it’s come to this, but there is no other way. The Bitcoin Core project has drifted so far from the principles myself and many others feel are important, that a fork is the only way to fix things,” Hearn wrote in a post to the bitcoin developer mailing list.
Bitcoin Core — the original bitcoin so to speak — deals in much smaller blocks than XT will. (Blocks are the transaction groups formed every 10 minutes or so). The current max block size is 1mb. XT will increase those blocks to a much larger 8mb, which supporters of the fork say is necessary for the currency’s continued development.
“As bitcoin spreads via word of mouth, we will reach the limit of the current system some time next year, or by 2017 at the absolute latest,” Hearn writes. “So it is now time to raise the limit or remove it entirely.”
Not everyone, however, is in support. Some claim the fix is too small and papers over problems when a wider fix is necessary. Others argue from traditionalism and say that bitcoin, as created by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009, is the true bitcoin and that a change this major requires the development of an entirely new “alt coin.”
“The developers of this pretender-bitcoin claim to be following my original vision, but nothing could be further from the truth. When I designed bitcoin, I designed it in such a way as to make future modifications to the consensus rules difficult without near unanimous agreement. Bitcoin was designed to be protected from the influence of charismatic leaders, even if their name is Gavin Andresen, Barack Obama or Satoshi Nakamoto. Nearly everyone has to agree on a change, and they have to do it without being forced or pressured into it. By doing a fork in this way, these developers are violating the ‘original vision’ they claim to honour,” an opponent claiming to be Satoshi Nakamoto posted in response to the planned fork.
Though the idea of the “real” Satoshi surfacing to complain has been widely dismissed, Hearn did note that it raises an interesting possibility.
“There’s an interesting thing here — what if Satoshi did come back and weigh in? Let’s imagine he turned up and said he’d rethought, and bitcoin was a bad idea. Should everyone just give up and walk away? Or accept that people’s ideas do change? My article quotes Satoshi a lot, but that’s not to imply he’s some sort of god or absent dictator.”
In the short term, Hearn argues that most bitcoin users should probably ignore the debate — unless they also happen to be miners. Users notably do not have much say in the proposals for the future of bitcoin, and the software they use to exchange them will likely opt for the bigger of the two BTC networks.
“Almost all users run wallets that will just automatically follow whatever the final decision is. It’s not something they need worry about,” he says.
“Except, of course, in a high-level sense: If they bought bitcoins in the hope that it one day takes off and becomes really big, then they should keep an eye on things. If the big-blocks side doesn’t win out then the chances of going mainstream look much worse, and they may wish to rethink their investment.”
Still, users ought be aware, as once a fork happens, the two versions of BTC will not be compatible with each other because the transactions on one network won’t be visible to the other — meaning any bitcoins on the wrong network will be unspendable and arguably valueless.