Ethereum is an open source programming language, cryptocurrency, and chat system, and its founders and many fans believe it could change the way we use the internet. Today, the first build of Ethereum—Frontier—was released.
Put more simply, Ethereum is sort of like a worldwide computer based on the blockchain, the publicly viewable ledger that serves as the underlying tech of the Bitcoin network. Bitcoin's blockchain records every transaction ever made, and the whole database lives on the computers of everyone running Bitcoin software, making it a distributed system.
Ethereum's blockchain, instead of just recording transactions—although it will do just that for its own currency, "ethers"—will also handle everything from super-secure "smart contracts" to distributed software. Instead of making calls to a server when using Ethereum apps, for example, your computer would communicate directly with the blockchain. To use Ethereum, you have to mine ethers and spend them when you consume the network's resources.
Speculation about the future of Ethereum has abounded since the developers raised nearly $15 million in Bitcoin last year in a crowdfunding campaign. Some in the Bitcoin community see the platform as eventually being a populist way to cut corporate middlemen out of the internet and decentralize everything from email to online activism. Ethereum also has its detractors, including a prominent Bitcoin developer, many of whom criticized the project for lacking focus.
As disruptive as it all sounds, none of that will be happening in Frontier. Today's release is the first rollout of a multi-stage release schedule, and it's really just a command line interface meant for advanced coders to play with the system and mine ethers to stabilize the network. As with Bitcoin, the more people who are mining and confirming transactions on the blockchain, the more secure the system is overall.
Using Frontier is risky, the Ethereum staff note in the release schedule blog post, because as a very early build it's susceptible to hiccups and unforeseen issues. As Frontier's name suggests, breaking new ground is never a sure, or particularly safe, bet.