Bitcoin was built on the sort of open-source ethos that has driven generations of geeks. But the same principles it celebrates – a decentralised network of contributors, a transparent code base – are allowing competitors to flourish.
The Bitcoin faithful aren’t so sure that’s a good thing.
Two high-profile Bitcoin developers, Gavin Andresen and Mike Hearn, released an alternative version of Bitcoin over the weekend. In software parlance, this kind of offshoot is called a “fork”. Hearn acknowledged in a blog post that not everyone is thrilled with the endeavour.
“The community is divided,” he wrote. “Such a fork has never happened before.”
Actually, forking is a pretty common occurrence in software. After Google created Android, which has become the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, Amazon.com, Nokia, and other device manufacturers created their own versions, partly to differentiate their products. Google allows for some modifications to Android but tries to discourage drastic changes by withholding its app store from incompatible devices.
Call it semi-open source. Many hugely successful programs started as forks, including the blogging platform WordPress and WebKit, which powers some of today’s most popular Web browsers.
But breaking off from an existing group of contributors to create a competing product “is a practice that is considered as a last resort”, according to a research report examining several hundred instances of forking.
“Our investigation shows, among other results, that forks occur in every
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