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Ethereum’s Istanbul upgrade: is ETH price on the cusp of a change in direction?

Ethereum istanbul upgrade eth price

Ethereum’s core developers are meeting in Berlin over the next two days to discuss the next step in the platform’s evolution: this fall’s expected Istanbul hardfork. At the same time, there is cautious optimism among Ethereum bulls that ETH is again testing key resistance levels after a week where it dropped dramatically almost immediately after hitting a 5-month high against the US Dollar.

On April 11, Ethereum hit $182.49 – its highest level since November 2018. The intervening period has been volatile, though since early February the trajectory has been overall positive, hitting higher highs and stabilizing at higher lows. But at the same time, Ethereum hasn’t kept pace with Bitcoin. The peak BTC value of ETH for 2019 so far was 0.04 BTC in early January, and the trend has been downward since then. A day before hitting its 7-month US Dollar high, ETH was at 0.03458 BTC. And as ETH fell over the days that followed its latest US Dollar high, it broke below 0.032 BTC, while also dipping briefly beneath $160. But with ETH’s dollar price now again breaking above $170 and seeing a similar sharp increase against BTC, there are some who believe a true breakout could be imminent.

Both bears and bulls have a lot to work with when predicting Ethereum’s trajectory over the coming months. So will Ethereum continue to slide against Bitcoin or we on the cusp of a change in direction? Here’s some of the main reasoning behind both viewpoints.

The Network Effect

Ethereum’s most ardent supporters typically point to its decentralization and mass of developers as reasons it will long remain the #2 cryptocurrency – and perhaps even eventually assume Bitcoin’s throne. The consensus is that Ethereum has more active developers than any other cryptocurrency or blockchain project, but there is little consensus on what exactly this means. And there is also a solid argument that this dominance on the decline.

In July 2018, a report from Consenys estimated the Ethereum developer community to number 250,000. The same report also noted that the development framework Truffle had received 550,000 downloads, the Ethereum browser plug-in MetaMask had more than 1 million downloads, and that 94% of the top 100 cryptocurrencies by market cap had been built on Ethereum. Other impressive figures included in the report were the existence of 35 million ETH addresses, 1 million of which were active, and 17,000 nodes spanning six continents powering the Ethereum blockchain.

The Consenys report has frequently been misquoted as claiming that Ethereum had “250,000 active developers”. As was noted in the Reddit discussion of a now-deleted YouTube video sensationalizing the world-changing potential of this figure, the 250,000 figure lacked a clear source and likely included many who were tangentially connected to Ethereum at best. Others noted the improbability of this figure against the 60,000 developers reportedly living in Silicon Valley, and 18 million software developers worldwide. For the 250,000 developers figure to be accurate, 1 in 75 of all software developers in the entire world would have to be engaged in Ethereum development.

A more accurate number may be that presented in crypto investment firm Electric Capital’s Q1 2019 Dev Report. This report estimates a total of 4,000 developers actively contributing code across 2,800 cryptocurrency tokens. According to Electric Capital, Ethereum has 216 developers contributing code each month to its repositories and an average of 99 developers making monthly contributions to its core protocols. This still places Ethereum far ahead of any other cryptocurrency in its number of developers – Bitcoin, for example, was identified as having 50 developers contributing to core protocols.

Electric Capital notes that the 216 figure is almost certainly downplaying the total number of developers working with Ethereum in some capacity, as it explicitly excludes “ecosystem projects” like Truffle. But wherever between 216 and 250,000 the true number of developers falls, few would argue against Ethereum having the largest active developer community of any cryptocurrency.

But there are two major sources of threats to Ethereum’s development dominance – outside threats, and those from within.

Increased Competition

A lot has changed since Consensys’ report was published in mid-2018. Most significantly, a substantial number of the “94% of top 100 cryptocurrencies” that were once based on Ethereum have since moved to their own mainnets. And those networks have been gaining ground on Ethereum.

According to DApp.com’s Q1 2019 report, 68% of all dapps registered on the site are based on Ethereum. And Ethereum continues to dominate dapp development, with Ethereum-based dapps accounting for more than half of the 504 dapps newly registered on the website in the first three months of this year. However, while 95% of EOS dapps and more than 80% of TRON and Steem dapps were considered active within the last 3 months, this was true for only about 55% of dapps on Ethereum.

And both EOS and TRON dapps dwarfed Ethereum dapps in transaction volume. While transactions amounting to $220 million were recorded on Ethereum dapps in Q1 2019, that figure was at above $1 billion for its two competitors: $1.65 billion on EOS and $1.36 billion for TRON. Both networks also beat out Ethereum in terms of active users, with 186,544 active users of Ethereum dapps against 262,450 for EOS and 357,953 for TRON.

The “killer app” that helped propel Ethereum from less than $10 in January 2017 to an all-time high above $1,343 in January 2018 was the ICO craze that enabled projects like EOS and TRON to amass enormous war chests for future development. But that is another area were Ethereum is rapidly losing ground.

A widely-quoted Statis Group report released in July 2018 claimed that around 80% of ICOs launched on Ethereum were “scams” of some description – with the important disclaimer that 70% of ICO funding went to what it identified as “high-quality projects.” Vitalik Buterin has long floated the idea of allowing investors greater control over how ICO funds are used as a way to guard against scams on the Ethereum network. But while Buterin’s proposed ICO improvements remains a goal to be worked toward, others have stepped in to give new projects a stamp of legitimacy.

The big buzz in crypto in the first quarter of this year has been around IEOs – initial exchange offerings – and STOs – security token offerings. Many ICO investors during the 2017 bull run were making huge profits from “ICO flipping” – buying hyped tokens at ICO and then selling them for an immediate profit once they became available for trading on exchanges. Now many cryptocurrency exchanges have cut out the middleman and begun offering such token offerings directly through their platforms.

Binance has been the big winner in the IEO rush, with its much-hyped launch of TRON’s BitTorrent token in January being one of several IEOs successfully completed on its Launchpad platform. The increased utility IEOs have given Binance’s BNB token is a big reason its almost quadrupled in value this year, moving from just above $6 in January to almost $20 at the time of writing.

Other exchanges have been quick to follow. KuCoin Shares briefly traded at above $2 earlier this month in the run-up to the launch of its own IEO for MultiVac token, but halved soon amid accusations the launch had been hijacked by bots. But with KuCoin Shares currently trading at $1.22, the exchange’s token is still up close to 100% since January.

Huobi Coin reached $2.64 following its IEO for Top.Network, more than doubling its January 1 value of $1.09. Bittrex is the latest exchange to successfully launch an IEO, though the speed with which it sold out has prompted familiar accusations that bots were buying up many of the tokens. And Chinese exchange Gate.io sold almost $3 billion of its own tokens during their launch earlier this week.

And blockchain-based STOs are making their way into the world of mainstream finance. We reported earlier this week that Taiwan’s FSC had approved STOs to be launched in the country. And just three days ago, The Telegraph reported that the London Stock Exchange had allowed fin-tech firm 2030 to issue £3 million worth of tokenized shares.

Issues Within the Ethereum Development Community

Charlie Hoskinson cofounded Ethereum and was also one of the first prominent Ethereum developers to abandon the platform. Hoskinson left the project in 2014, before its official 2015 launch, and went on to create Cardano. In a recent interview with Fortune, Hoskinson spoke out against the “lone samurai viewpoint” of top-down development guiding Ethereum and other projects like EOS. Hoskinson argues that having a prominent figurehead overseeing a project leads to slower development times. In a pointed reference to the cryptocurrency meme of prices mooning, Hoskinson stated that it took a million people working at NASA to land man on the moon.

Others currently involved in Ethereum development have been similarly outspoken about issues with the way the project is governed. On March 30, core developer Lane Rettig posted a series of Tweets that began with the dramatic declaration that “Ethereum governance has failed.” Rettig went on to outline possible ways forward for Ethereum, concluding that the best of a bad bunch of options was to “admit that decentralized governance does not work _yet_… [and] fall back on centralized governance for the time being.” But Rettig then added that if this is “the best we can do for now – what’s the point, right? What makes us think that decentralized governance will suddenly start working at some point in the future? What would that take, realistically? What’s our roadmap?”

And while criticism of Ethereum’s slow progress toward the eventual release of the Serenity update that will signal the “final stage” of Ethereum – Ethereum 2.0 – some have been seeking answers outside Ethereum for implementation of “Serenity Now.”

Gavin Wood is one of Buterin and Hoskinson’s fellow cofounders of Ethereum. According to Wood’s own website, his contributions to Ethereum included serving as “CTO for the first 18-24 months of the project,” inventing the Solidity smart contract language, coding “the first functional implementation of Ethereum released as “PoC-1” in late January 2014,” and authoring the Ethereum yellow paper. After departing Ethereum, Wood founded Parity Technologies and wrote the 2016 whitepaper for Polkadot, providing a vision for a “heterogeneous multichain framework.”

Parity is described as “the fastest and most advanced Ethereum client,” powering “the core of the core of the Ethereum network [and] handling over $50 billion in assets.” Polkadot is now one of Parity’s core projects, looking to usher in the next generation of blockchain technology when it goes live in Q3 2019. Some of the most important things to note about Polkadot is that it will allow for interoperability between other blockchains using a technology called ‘parachains’ and that it will be based on a Proof of Stake (PoS) consensus mechanism.

The parachain concept is an evolution of long-proposed ‘sharding’ solutions that would make Ethereum more scalable by splintering its network into many small interconnected blockchain ‘shards.’ And a switch from a Proof of Work (PoW) mining consensus mechanism to PoS is a long-term goal of Ethereum – in fact, many expect that a half-way switch to a combine PoS/PoW model called ProgPoS will be part of Ethereum’s Istanbul upgrade this fall.

In a now-deleted Tweet in February that quickly became infamous, Ethereum core developer and Parity Release Manager Afri Schoedon sparked a storm of outrage from Ethereum supporters when he stated: “Polkadot delivers what Serenity ought to be. Change my mind.” In the furore that followed, Schoedon quit the Ethereum development community. All Tweets related to the matter have been deleted from his account, but you can sample the rancour they provoked by reading the related discussions on the ETH Trader and Ethereum subreddits.

Why Ethereum Could Still Prevail

When Ethereum launched in 2015, it was ground-breaking as a platform that took the concepts underlying Bitcoin to another level. A notorious truism of emerging technologies is that first mover advantage doesn’t last long. Ethereum is already facing competition from other smart contract platforms, and the launch of Polkadot later this year will only add to the competition it faces. And as most of these competing platforms have been funded through Ethereum-funded ICOs, many hold substantial amounts of Ethereum tokens. Statis Groups’ July 2018 reported stated that 12% of all circulating ETH tokens were held by the top 115 ICOs, with 3% being held by the top 20 projects. Some have compared the situation of these competing projects holding substantial ETH funds to Yahoo! holding a portion of vote-bearing Google shares and raised fears it could stifle Ethereum’s future development.

Vitalik Buterin recently took to Reddit to address some of the heavily-publicized issues within the Ethereum developer community:

“”The team” is larger and broader than you think. While I get frustrated with the antics of the “chattering classes” myself, it’s important to keep in mind that Prysmatic, lighthouse, the eth2 research team, etc etc are all continuing work right on schedule, and the recent governance noises, while loud and annoying, did not delay the progress of eth2 by even a single day. State channel and Plasma and ZK rollup devs are similarly steadily moving forward, as are the 1.x rent proposals. The existing 1.0 clients are being tirelessly upgraded to better handle the load of the current chain, with a huge victory a few months ago in dropping uncle rates as well as constant improvements in block propagation. When you’re making a bet on the ethereum ecosystem, it’s those silent armies you are betting on.”

And as well as the “silent armies” still guiding Ethereum development, there are other powerful entities that are pushing Ethereum forward. Ernst & Young (EY), one of the ‘Big 4’ accounting firms, recently announced plans to rollout Nightfall in May. Nightfall is the result of a year of coding and millions of dollars of investment intended to create a business-friendly open-source software that will allow firms to build blockchain solutions on top of Ethereum. Nightfall will use zero-knowledge proofs to allow businesses to conduct private transactions and shield sensitive data will leveraging the power of the Ethereum public blockchain.

Similarly positive recent news saw Microsoft and the Ethereum Enterprise Alliance together announce plans to more easily create tokens that can be used on the Ethereum network. And as Ethereum core devs are meeting in Berlin, an Amazon Web Services Summit in Amsterdam has included a presentation from Unchain.io – an Amazon Web Services plugin that allows for easier integration of Ethereum dapps.

Another aspect to consider is the recent proliferation of stablecoins, which a Binance report last month concluded is reducing Bitcoin’s dominance over cryptocurrency trading pairs. As our feature into the four biggest new stablecoins explains, all are based on top of Ethereum. These stablecoins are aiming to do more than just provide cryptocurrency traders with a safehaven from market volatility – projects like Coinbase and Circle’s USD Coin and the Winklevoss Twins’ Gemini Dollars are hoping to provide a mechanism for investing in STOs and increase cryptocurrency adoption in other innovative ways. With Ethereum underpinning their efforts, any success they have is likely to be of benefit to ETH.

The Outlook for Ethereum

An important point to note is that most of the criticism of Ethereum governance being ineffective has been levelled much more harshly at projects like EOS and TRON. And while there has no doubt been recent disquiet from prominent Ethereum developers, its development community remains by far the strongest and most decentralized in the cryptocurrency space. With EY’s recent announcement of Nightfall showing the faith powerful financial players continue to have in Ethereum, it would be foolish to count Ethereum out.

As we get close to the proposed October date of Ethereum’s Istanbul upgrade, there will no doubt be more dramatic headlines and wild market volatility along the way. But Ethereum’s supporters will be confident that its long-term goal of being the backbone of a blockchain revolution is still within reach.

About Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams is a British writer based in South Korea with a strong interest in emerging technologies, cryptocurrency, and the development of decentralized apps.

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