Ethereum, with its much-anticipated London hard fork now activated, has been making big strides toward challenging Bitcoin’s market dominance. But Ethereum’s rivals are also hot on its tail. Emerging blockchain platforms dubbed “Ethereum killers” are striving for a larger share of the decentralized finance (DeFi), non-fungible token (NFT) and smart-contract market.
Ethereum is a decentralized, open-source blockchain network that invites developers to build their own decentralized applications (dApps) using the network’s open infrastructure.
Ethereum’s native currency, ETH, is the second-largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization after Bitcoin.
Having launched in 2015, Ethereum has the first-mover advantage over other altcoins and smart contract platforms, and is recognized as the world’s most popular decentralized marketplace for financial services, apps, and games.
But being early in the game isn’t the only force propelling Ethereum’s significant growth. Ethereum’s underlying technology is a significant contributing factor for the network’s grasp on the smart contract and dApp industry. Thanks to its smart contract functionality, users can execute more complex financial transactions, including the transfer of other digital asset classes like NFTs (non-fungible tokens).
When the network was launched, its smart contracts and dApps were considered revolutionary technology, which inspired developers to form communities around Ethereum, growing the use cases of blockchain.
But as the industry evolved, so-called “Ethereum killers” — or rivals to the Ethereum blockchain— started appearing, claiming to have superior technology. Simply put, Ethereum killers are emerging blockchain platforms that are hoping to take away some of Ethereum’s share in the market.
Ethereum killers are generally open-source blockchain protocols that capitalize on improving one or more of Ethereum’s main shortcomings, such as network speed and high gas fees. Investors hypothesize that other second or third-generation blockchains, such as Cardano, Binance Smart Chain, and Solana, could take some of Ethereum’s market share by presenting better alternatives for users before Ethereum could solve its problems.
But to understand Ethereum’s most significant competitors, let’s first take a look at the network’s fundamental weaknesses, which the industry is trying to improve upon.
Ethereum’s Achilles heel
Scalability is one of the biggest problems plaguing the success of the Ethereum network and the decentralized finance industry altogether. When Vitalik Buterin launched Ethereum back in 2015, he couldn’t have anticipated the massive demand for the platform.
But as demand grew, Ethereum’s proof-of-work (PoW) consensus model became outdated, as it can only handle around 13 transactions per second (TPS). And since the ecosystem averages 1.355 million transactions per day, the lack of throughput has led to a congested network, and consequently to highly volatile gas fees. This is an issue for businesses that rely on Ethereum for regular transactions.
Another issue with Ethereum’s outdated consensus algorithm is that each transaction takes an enormous amount of computational power, which makes the system’s energy consumption high, similar to Bitcoin, the world’s first cryptocurrency. Despite being highly secure, PoW is unsustainable due to its power requirements, since Ethereum is estimated to consume 54.47 TWh per year, which is more than the 49.01 TWh consumed by the entire country of Peru.
Ethereum is currently in the midst of one of its biggest updates, also known as Ethereum 2.0. Ethereum 2.0 is a set of updates that will transition Ethereum to a more efficient consensus architecture known as proof of stake (POS), making Ethereum consume at least 99.95% less energy. The most recent upgrade towards Ethereum 2.0 is the London hard fork, which includes the much-awaited EIP-1559, the Ethereum Improvement Proposal that is also aimed at fixing the volatility of gas fees and making Ether into a scarcer asset by introducing coin burning.
But while Ethereum 2.0 is being rolled out, the competition to supplant or at least take a bite out of Ethereum’s market share is only heating up. Here are four of Ethereum’s biggest competitors in the smart contract race.
As the founder of Cardano, Charles Hoskinson, also co-founded Ethereum, Cardano often jumps first to mind when it comes to Ethereum killers. Cardano is a public, open-source blockchain for building dApps and for running smart contracts — with the latter feature still in development.
Cardano’s native currency, ADA, is currently the fifth-largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization at the time of this writing. ADA has a fixed supply of 45 billion coins, with 32.7 billion already in circulation. ADA has been in the top 10 cryptocurrencies almost since its launch, which is a strong sign of the technology’s underlying value.
Cardano was launched in 2017, two years after Ethereum, and is known as a third-generation blockchain, meaning that its advanced technology is trying to solve the issues created by the first- and second-generation blockchains, namely Bitcoin and Ethereum.
The two platforms are competing on two fundamental aspects: smart contracts and consensus mechanisms. Ethereum is winning the smart contract race, as the network already offers complete smart contract functionality. Ethereum is also the go-to platform for developers, as it already hosts 2,812 dApps, which is an astonishing 79.23% of all the dApps developed in the industry.
On the other hand, Cardano’s approach to blockchain development is holistically different. For one, each of Cardano’s updates is peer-reviewed by experts, making it the first blockchain to be tested by academics. Consequently, each upgrade takes much more time for Cardano, as they are rolled out after rigorous backtesting.
Cardano doesn’t offer smart contracts — yet, but it already launched its first smart contract test net known as “Alonzo.” The Alonzo upgrade is projected to be completed by the end of August 2021, deploying much-awaited smart-contract functionality and enabling decentralized finance applications on the blockchain.
But when it comes to the most efficient consensus architecture, Cardano already has a head start. While Ethereum is still working on its transition to proof of stake, Cardano was already built on proof of stake. Cardano’s proof-of-stake algorithm makes the network more energy-efficient and eco-friendly, as transaction validation only takes a fraction of the computational power in comparison to Ethereum.
Cardano also wins in network performance, as it can support up to 266 TPS (transactions per second), compared to Ethereum’s 13 TPS. Cardano is steadily moving along its technical roadmap, further optimizing its network performance. The team is already working on a layer-2 scaling solution known as Hydra. Once deployed, Hydra will theoretically enable Cardano to scale to 1 million TPS. In comparison, Ethereum 2.0 is estimated to support 100,000 TPS after deployment.
Ethereum has a clear first-mover advantage compared to Cardano, but its scalability and performance-related issues started driving away companies and developers. Whether this is enough for Cardano to eventually take its place is still uncertain. With Ethereum launching its PoS algorithm and Cardano rolling out smart contracts, the second half of 2021 will be a decisive year for both platforms. The race for the second most popular protocol will depend on the successful implementation of their updates, and the number of technical difficulties each network faces during the rollout.
Binance Smart Chain
Binance Smart Chain (BSC), the blockchain created by the popular digital asset exchange Binance in 2019, is another project competing against Ethereumin the smart contract space.
BSC is a blockchain network built for cross-chain compatibility with the native Binance Chain, which enables the development of high-performance dApps and other smart contract-based applications. BSC combines the high transaction throughput of the Binance Chain with the smart contract functionality of the Binance Smart Chain.
Besides providing a robust toolset for dApp development, BSC aims to help traders and investors manage their digital assets with low latency and low cost — essentially solving two of Ethereum’s biggest criticisms.
Yet, BSC also supports the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM), which enables Ethereum-based apps to run on the blockchain as well.
The Binance ecosystem’s native cryptocurrency, BNB, is the highest entry coin on our list, ranked as the fourth-largest cryptocurrency. BNB is used as a utility token, and as a means to secure the network’s PoSA (Proof of Staked Authority) consensus model via staking.
Validators creating blocks receive transaction fees, but not freshly minted BNB tokens, opposed to other blockchains, because BNB isn’t inflationary. Binance regularly executes coin burns, which can make BNB’s value rise over time.
When it comes to Binance Smart Chain versus Ethereum, Binance offers faster and cheaper transactions. The network has an average block time of 3.0 seconds and a throughput of 39.2 TPS, making it around three times as fast as Ethereum.
As for transaction fees, BSC averages 7 gwei per transaction, with 1 gwei being worth 0.000000001 BNB, which is only $0.0003, or a small fraction of a cent, making BSC the cheaper alternative. In comparison, Ethereum averages $5.422 per transaction, the equivalent of 0.0017 Ether at press time.
One sign of BSC’s adoption is that the network is already overtaking Ethereum in daily transactions. On July 11, 2021, BSC processed a total of 3.2 million transactions, almost tripling the Ethereum network’s 1.1 million transactions per day.
Despite flipping Ethereum in daily transactions, Changpeng Zhao, the CEO of Binance, claims that BSC isn’t an Ethereum killer, but a temporary replacement until Ethereum 2.0 comes out: “#BSC is more like a #ETH 1.8. 100% backward compatible, faster and lower fees (97% lower),” wrote Zhao in a tweet.
Yet, BSC’s inherent centralized nature could make it less resilient than Ethereum and its multitude of decentralized nodes. Since Binance the company is the single safety net behind the network, its blockchain might not survive if its parent company was shut down by regulators.
BSC is also owned by a single entity, which technically allows Binance to modify or censor transactions on the blockchain. This would be extremely difficult to do on the Ethereum network, as it isn’t owned by a single organization.
Despite Binance Smart Chain’s strong market capitalization, experts believe it is unlikely to dethrone Ethereum in the near future, provided that Ethereum 2.0 successfully rolls out, solving the main pain points of the network.
Solana, another rival to Ethereums, has gotten a lot of buzz lately. Solana’s ecosystem already has over 250 projects, with partners like USDC, Chainlink, and Serum, a decentralized exchange that surged 1500% only 12 hours after its launch.
Investors have also been excited as Solana Labs recently completed a $314.15 million private token sale led by Andreessen Horowitz and Polychain Capital.
Solana is the world’s first web-scale blockchain and currently the fastest network in the industry, thanks to its unmatched throughput of 50,000 TPS, and an average block time of 600 milliseconds — without the need for layer-2 scaling solutions. Similar to Ethereum, Solana also offers an open infrastructure to deploy dApps and smart contracts.
Solana’s native token, SOL, is currently the 14th-largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization, at the time of writing.
Solana is known as a fourth-generation blockchain that claims to have solved the blockchain trilemma — creating a fast and scalable network, without compromising on its security or decentralization, by introducing its eight core innovations that make the network’s industry-leading throughput possible.
Solana is around 3,800 times faster than Ethereum, and only costs $0.00025 per transaction, compared to Ethereum’s average of $6.498 per transaction. Speed and transaction costs are both crucial for blockchain technology’s real-world use cases and future adoption.
Now, Solana’s underlying protocol is faster and more efficient than Ethereum’s, so why hasn’t it taken its place? Because having the most innovative technology isn’t everything in this rapidly evolving industry.
For one, Solana had a late start, as its beta mainnet launched in March 2020, with basic transaction capabilities and smart-contract features. Despite boasting complete functionality, the mainnet is currently still in beta, to mark that the team is still working on improving the network’s features and stability.
Solana’s technology will likely not be enough to reverse Ethereum’s widespread adoption among institutions and developers, thanks to Ethereum’s head start in the market. And faced with competition by other rivals to Ethereum that are more populars, Solana will unlikely dethrone Ethereum anytime in the near future.
But thanks to Solana’s solid infrastructure, a market where both Solana and Ethereum will coexist is much more likely.
Polkadot is a next-generation blockchain, referred to as a sharded heterogeneous multi-chain architecture — meaning that it’s a blockchain protocol with multiple chains, aiming to connect different blockchains into a single unified network, enabling them to communicate via its relay chain.
Blockchains that connect with the Polkadot network are known as “parachains.” Once connected, they can leverage Polkadot’s PoS chain, or “relay chain,” to increase transaction throughput and benefit from the network’s robust security mechanisms.
Polkadot aims to create an interconnected internet of blockchains, thus competing in the same league as Ethereum, EOSIO and Cosmos. Yet Polkadot is a late entry to the race for interoperability, as its mainnet launched in May 2020.
Web3 Foundation, the team behind Polkadot, was founded by Gavin Wood, another co-founder of Ethereum, and Jutta Steiner, co-founder and CEO of Parity Technologies. Polkadot focuses on building infrastructure for Web 3.0 by creating an interconnected blockchain network to empower the end-users.
Polkadot’s internal token, DOT, is used as a governance token and transactional currency on the network for deploying dApps and smart contracts. With a little over a year since its launch, DOT is already ranked as the ninth-largest cryptocurrency by market cap, at press time.
Polkadot aims to solve two of the biggest criticisms surrounding the current blockchain infrastructure — scalability and governance, which refers to how communities manage protocol upgrades. These are both prevalent issues for the Ethereum community.
Polkadot solved the issue of scalability and inter-chain operability with the aforementioned parachains, which enable networks to process multi-parallelized transactions, empowering the network to theoretically reach 1 million TPS.
“Ethereum can do 25 transactions per second (TPS), but, of course, the more you use it the worse it gets,” said Gavin Wood, co-founder of Polkadot, on CoinDesk’s Consensus: Distributed virtual conference. “Polkadot uses parachains [parallel processing chains] and can go from 100K TPS to up to 1 million TPS,” explained Wood.
Another upside of Polkadot over Ethereum is that the protocol is forkless, meaning that it doesn’t take a hard fork to make updates or introduce new features. Hard forks have been known to splinter the Ethereum community multiple times before, a risk that isn’t a danger to Polkadot’s future.
Despite Polkadot’s enhanced scalability and cross-chain interoperability, Ethereum’s market cap is currently over 15 times larger than Polkadot’s. This is because institutional adoption is a significant driving force for crypto valuation than the underlying technology, and institutions are betting on Ethereum, despite its volatile gas fees and transaction times.
Polkadot is still the new kid on the block proving itself before wider institutional adoption. Most DOT holders are currently invested in Polkadot’s future-proof technology and the potential for it to bring a more connected Web 3.0. But others fear that Ethereum 2.0 will render Polkadot’s bridges useless.
In the short term, Polkadot is unlikely to steal Ethereum’s thunder, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting technological alternatives that has the potential to revolutionize the blockchain ecosystem.
There’s room for everyone in DeFi
Despite its criticisms, Ethereum has become the foundation of decentralized finance, on which many noteworthy projects have been built since the beginning of the crypto boom. No wonder that 79.23% of all dApps are built on the network. Consequently, the blockchain space has since seen numerous projects market themselves as “Ethereum killers,” aiming for a larger share of the DeFi and smart contract market.
But Ethereum’s widespread adoption and first-mover advantage are keeping the network at the forefront of the smart contract industry. Binance’s BNB, which is Ether’s closest competitor by market capitalization, would have to increase its valuation 11 times to become the second-largest cryptocurrency.
Many industry leaders, including Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, believe that the only Ethereum killer is Ethereum itself: “Vitalik once said (and there is a video of it somewhere), ETH killer is ETH. I believe he is correct, ironically,” wrote Zhao in a series of tweets, warning that not scaling the network up to the growing demand is the true Ethereum killer.
Ethereum’s dominance is also clear considering the total value locked (TVL) in the DeFi industry. Currently, the total net valued locked is US$103.6 billion, with Ethereum accounting for US$77.2 billion, representing over 75% of the TVL. Binance Smart Chain is second to Ethereum, with $17.9 billion locked in on its chain, which makes up roughly 17% of the TVL in DeFi.
There’s a lot at stake for Ethereum and its London hard fork, which is one of the most important upgrades leading up to Ethereum 2.0. With the upgrade so far going as planned, Ethereum’s grasp of the DeFI and smart contract market is unlikely to loosen. On the flip side, if Ethereum 2.0 faces further delays, Cardano, BSC, and Polkadot might be able to capture more of the market share, diminishing Ethereum’s dominance.
Yet, with the DeFi industry growing 88x in a single year, there’s room for blockchain platforms to coexist and contribute to the future of Web 3.0 together. The future of decentralized finance is likely built on multiple robust networks, rather than a single dominant entity — faithful to the ideals of true decentralization.