LONDON — It's a promising form of electronic cash free from central bankers and beloved by hackers. It — Bitcoin — may also be in trouble, registering catastrophic losses that have sent speculators scrambling.
Although the cybercurrency has existed for years as a kind of Internet oddity, a perfect storm of developments has brought it to the cusp of mainstream use.
As currency crises in Europe piqued investors' interest, a growing number of businesses announced they were accepting bitcoins for an ever-wider range of goods and services. The value of a single bitcoin began racing upward amid growing media attention, smashing past the $100 mark last week before more than doubling again in just a few days.
Then came the crash.
The price of Bitcoin has imploded, falling from around $266 on Wednesday to just above $40 on Thursday, according to bitcoincharts.com, which tracks trades across the Internet. The best-known exchange, Tokyo-based Mt. Gox, has suspended trading for what it described as a 12-hour "market cooldown." By late Thursday, the currency was back up to just more than $100.
Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist for the ConvergEx Group, said it was a "great question" whether the currency could survive the wrenching ups and downs.
"At this point I would say yes, since it has before," Colas wrote in an email. But he noted that, unlike previous oscillations, Thursday's collapse was taking place in the full glare of international media attention.
"A lot more people know about Bitcoin than during the prior problems," he said.
To its supporters — tech-savvy libertarians, currency geeks and online speculators — Bitcoin has enormous promise.
Bitcoins are created, distributed and authenticated independently of any bank or government. The currency's cryptographic features make it virtually immune from counterfeiting, and its relative anonymity holds out the promise of being able to spend money across the Internet without fear of censors, regulators or nosey officials.
The linchpin of the system is a network of "miners" — high-end computer users who supply the Bitcoin network with the processing power needed to maintain a transparent, running tally of all transactions. The tally is one of the most important ways in which the system prevents fraud, and the miners are rewarded for supporting the system with an occasional helping of brand-new bitcoins.
Cryptographers argue over whether Bitcoin is well-designed, but the true test of any currency is whether it can be used to buy anything.
Increasingly, Bitcoin is passing the test. From hard drugs to hard currency, songs to survival gear, cars to consumer goods, many retailers have welcomed the money.
Atlanta-based BitPay handles Bitcoin transactions for more than 4,500 companies, taking payments in bitcoins and forwarding the cash equivalent to the vendor involved, which means that its clients are insulated from the cybercurrency's volatility.
BitPay chief executive Anthony Gallippi said many of the businesses he served were e-commerce websites, but he said an increasing number of traditional retailers were looking to get into the game as well.
One of the most prominent destinations for bitcoins remains Silk Road, a black market website where drug dealers advertise their wares in a consumer-friendly atmosphere redolent of Amazon or eBay — complete with a shopping cart icon, a five-point rating system and voluminous user reviews. The site uses Tor, an online anonymity network, to mask the location of its servers, while bitcoin payments ensure there's no paper trail. For Colas, the market strategist, the most important thing to keep in mind was that bitcoins suffer from the same weakness as any other form of money. If people increasingly believe they're not worth anything, then they're not worth anything — no matter how clever the currency's design.
"The future of Bitcoin is, like all currencies, going to come down to trust," he said.