Here is a bit from an article by James Surowiecki in MIT's Technology Review:
The Bitcoin network, designed by an unknown programmer with the handle "Satoshi Nakamoto," used a decentralized peer-to-peer system to verify transactions, which meant that people could exchange goods and services electronically, and anonymously, without having to rely on third parties like banks. Its medium of exchange, the bitcoin, was an invented currency that people could earn—or, in Bitcoin's jargon, "mine"—by lending their computers' resources to service the needs of the Bitcoin network. Once in existence, bitcoins could also be bought and sold for dollars or other currencies on online exchanges. The network seemed like a potentially useful supplement to existing monetary systems: it let people avoid the fees banks charge and take part in noncash transactions anonymously while still guaranteeing that transactions would be secure.Obviously this "currency" is the gold bug's delight since it is a strictly limited quantity. But if you look at the wild gyrations in value and the hoarding, this obviously isn't suitable as a real world currency. It is a perfect illustration of the problems of a gold standard.
Yet over the past year and a half Bitcoin has become, for some, much more. Instead of a supplement to the dollar economy, it's been trumpeted as a competitor, and promoters have conjured visions of markets where bitcoins are a dominant medium of exchange. The hyperbole is out of proportion with the more mundane reality. Tens of thousands of bitcoins are traded each day (some for goods and services, others in exchange for other currencies), and several hundred businesses, mostly in the digital world, now take bitcoins as payment. That's good for a new monetary system, but it's not disruptive growth. Still, the excitement is perhaps predictable. Setting aside Bitcoin's cool factor—it might just as well have leapt off the pages of Neal Stephenson's cult science-fiction novel Snow Crash—a peer-to-peer electronic currency uncontrolled by central bankers or politicians is a perfect object for the anxieties and enthusiasms of those frightened by the threats of inflation and currency debasement, concerned about state power and the surveillance state, and fascinated with the possibilities created by distributed, decentralized systems.
Bitcoin is not going to make government-backed currencies obsolete. But while the system's virtues, such as anonymity and the lack of bank fees, may not matter much to most consumers, one can envision it being useful in a variety of niche markets (some legal, others not, like recreational drugs). Where anonymity is valuable, where trusted third parties are hard to find or charge high rates, and where persistently high inflation is a problem, it's possible that bitcoins could in fact flourish as an alternative currency.
Before they become such an alternative, though, the system will have to overcome a major, and surprising, problem: people have come to see it primarily as a way to make money. In other words, instead of being used as a currency, bitcoins are today mostly seen as (and traded as) an investment. There's a good reason for that: as people learned about Bitcoin, the value of bitcoins, in dollar terms, skyrocketed. In July 2010, after the website Slashdot ran an item that introduced the currency to the public (or at least the public enthusiastic about new technologies), the value of bitcoins jumped tenfold in five days. Over the next eight months, the value rose tenfold again. This attracted an enormous amount of publicity. More important, it also made people think that buying and holding bitcoins was an easy way to make a buck. As a result, many—probably most—Bitcoin users are acquiring bitcoins not in order to buy goods and services but to speculate. That's a bad investment decision, and it also hurts Bitcoin's prospects.
True believers in Bitcoin's usefulness prefer to deny that speculation is driving the action in bitcoins. But the evidence suggests otherwise. The value of the currency has been tremendously volatile over the past year. A bitcoin has been worth as little as a few pennies and as much as $33, and after seeming to stabilize at around $14 over the summer, the bitcoin's value tumbled by almost 50 percent in a matter of days in August. Media coverage has had an outsized impact on the value of bitcoins, even when it has not had a major impact on the number of transactions conducted. Blog posts in which people talk about buying bitcoins because of how much they've increased in value are common. In May, Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, which focuses on patent and copyright reform, posted that he had decided to put all his savings into Bitcoin. Although he had previously published a series of posts arguing for the bitcoin's viability as a currency, his first listed reason for investing in bitcoins was that their value had risen a thousandfold against the U.S. dollar in the previous 14 months. That's classic speculative thinking.
The problem with having the Bitcoin economy dominated by speculators is that it gives people an incentive to hoard their bitcoins rather than spend them, which is the opposite of what you need people to do in order to make a currency successful. Successful currencies are used to transact day-to-day business and lubricate commerce. But if you buy bitcoins hoping that their value will skyrocket (as anyone investing in bitcoins would), you're not going to be interested in exchanging those bitcoins for goods, since then you'll lose out when the value of bitcoins rises. Instead, you're going to hold onto them and wait until you can cash out.
This kind of hoarding is made more likely by the way Bitcoin is set up. Whereas the supply of modern, "fiat" currencies is controlled by central banks, the supply of bitcoins is permanently limited; there will never be more than 21 million bitcoins in existence.
Here is a bit by Paul Krugman on his NY Times blog that hammers home the point:
Bitcoin, rather than fixing the value of the virtual currency in terms of those green pieces of paper, fixes the total quantity of cybercurrency instead, and lets its dollar value float. In effect, Bitcoin has created its own private gold standard world, in which the money supply is fixed rather than subject to increase via the printing press.I never cease to be amazed at people who yearn desperately for simple solutions. There is no perfect currency. The economy and currency are a social construct. They work only while people believe. Fixing the supply or basing the supply on some shiny yellow stuff is too simplistic. The real world will always be complex, murky, and unstable. But it ends up being more stable than a "perfect currency" like gold or Bitcoin.
So how’s it going? The dollar value of that cybercurrency has fluctuated sharply, but overall it has soared. So buying into Bitcoin has, at least so far, been a good investment.
But does that make the experiment a success? Um, no. What we want from a monetary system isn’t to make people holding money rich; we want it to facilitate transactions and make the economy as a whole rich. And that’s not at all what is happening in Bitcoin.
Bear in mind that dollar prices have been relatively stable over the past few years – yes, some deflation in 2008-2009, then some inflation as commodity prices rebounded, but overall consumer prices are only slightly higher than they were three years ago. What that means is that if you measure prices in Bitcoins, they have plunged; the Bitcoin economy has in effect experienced massive deflation.
And because of that, there has been an incentive to hoard the virtual currency rather than spending it. The actual value of transactions in Bitcoins has fallen rather than rising. In effect, real gross Bitcoin product has fallen sharply.
So to the extent that the experiment tells us anything about monetary regimes, it reinforces the case against anything like a new gold standard – because it shows just how vulnerable such a standard would be to money-hoarding, deflation, and depression.
The key question is the one Surowiecki asks:
After all, would you accept bitcoins in exchange for your work or products if you knew their value had fallen 50 percent in a matter of days?