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Once bitcoin established itself as a viable currency that had potential to stick around, other cryptocurrencies began popping up in its wake to try to dethrone it.

The two biggest cryptocurrencies in the world by market cap are Bitcoin and Ethereum, but the third largest - Ripple - stands out from them. What is it that sets Ripple apart, and what has people talking about it despite Bitcoin and Ethereum being worth so much more?

What Is Ripple?

Ripple is at once a company, a digital-payment processing system and a cryptocurrency, which is also known as XRP. This is similar to bitcoin, but Ripple's blockchain system is very different, and the currency is owned by the one company - Ripple - whereas bitcoin is mined.

The infrastructure of Ripple is designed to make transactions quicker and more convenient for banks, so it is a more popular cryptocurrency option for larger financial institutions. While Ripple is often used to refer to XRP cryptocurrency, it is actually the company (formerly known as Ripple Labs) that holds most of the XRP. Ripple not only offers a number of payment systems, but owns approximately 60 billion XRP and holds 55 billion of it in an escrow account. They're able to sell up to one billion of these a month - though they rarely do.

Ripple's blockchain system, RippleNet, offers businesses and financial institutions a number of programs that help cross-border payments. This includes xCurrent (a payment processing system for banks), xRapid (allows financial institutions to minimize liquidity cost while using XRP as a bridge from one fiat currency to another), and xVia (allows businesses to send payments via RippleNet).

Ripple's website boasts dozens of clients that use their blockchain system, from smaller banks to some of the largest in the country. American Express (AXP) - Get Free Report , for example, announced a partnership with Ripple in 2017 that allowed for limited blockchain payments from U.S. businesses to U.K. businesses.

Ripple also brags of the company's versatility, ability to help large financial institutions, and its exceptionally fast transaction time. At the heart of all of this is the currency itself - XRP.

XRP: What Is Ripple Currency?

XRP, the digital asset of Ripple, is supposedly capable of settling a payment within 4 seconds and handling 1,500 transactions every second.

Though Ripple has differed from other cryptocurrencies in a number of ways, one way it remains similar is that there is a finite amount of XRP created, and that is all there will be. In the case of XRP, 100 billion exist, 60% of which are owned by Ripple.

Were a financial institution to use xRapid to help with cross-border payments from one fiat currency to another, XRP is what is used mid-transaction for liquidity. This makes Ripple and XRP a bit unusual in the world of cryptocurrency: It's not really used as a currency, to the point that Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse recently told a conference audience, "I don't think about the digital asset market. I think about the customer experience."

Because so much XRP is owned by Ripple and isn't really used as a currency, some have alleged that it should be considered a security. Garlinghouse, however, has said he believes it should not be, as it serves a utilitarian purpose, and owning XRP does not mean owning a part of the company Ripple.

Ripple vs. Bitcoin

Bitcoin, as the most well-known cryptocurrency with easily the largest market cap, is an easy comparison to make when discussing other cryptocurrencies. However, Ripple is quite different from bitcoin in a number of ways.

Some notable ways are how Ripple sells itself, especially with regards to transaction speeds. One of the more notable complaints about bitcoin is how long a transaction can take. With the extreme volatility of bitcoin, it creates the risk that when the transaction is finalized, you may not be getting the amount of BTC you expected when you first initiated it. But with Ripple claiming 4-second long transaction times, that's far less of a concern.

Bitcoin is entirely decentralized, as it was made with the purpose of allowing for financial transactions without the need of a third party like a bank. Ripple, on the other hand, literally sells its services to banks and financial institutions. With most of the XRP being owned by the company, the network is far more centralized.

Despite each falling under the large umbrella of "cryptocurrencies," ripple and bitcoin's purposes couldn't be further apart. Bitcoin was made in the hopes of creating a brand new financial system entirely. Ripple, creating its digital token to help with asset transfers, seeks to assist existing financial systems and upgrade their capabilities for worldwide transactions.

Is There Ripple Mining?

Another notable difference between ripple and bitcoin is mining. Bitcoins are known for being mined, a controversial process due to its combination of expensive technology required and vast amount of energy needed to do it.

Whereas all 21 million bitcoins must be mined, all 100 billion XRP already exist and require no mining. So far, ripple has a circulating supply of over 39 billion XRP. Those interested in owning any will need to purchase it via a cryptocurrency exchange - though this is much cheaper than spending money on crypto mining rigs.

XRP Price

Ripple price has fluctuated wildly in its short history. As of this writing, XRP is valued at 48 cents, with a market cap of about $18.8 billion, per CoinMarketCap.

For the overwhelming majority of XRP's existence, its value has languished under a dollar - if an XRP owner in 2016 saw it was worth nearly half a dollar now, they'd be amazed at how much it increased; by the time January 2017 came, the value of one XRP was just $0.006. It began to climb later in the year, and by the end of May it had hit nearly $0.40. It fell not long after, but stayed in the 10 cents and 20 cents range for the next 6 months or so.

December 2017 saw a major spike. By the 14th, it had surpassed 80 cents in value. One week later, on the 21st, the value was above $1 for the first time in its history. A week after that it hit $2, and on Jan. 4, 2018, it reached its high point: $3.84 in value, and over $148 billion in market cap. It even overtook Ethereum for second-highest cryptocurrency market cap. This was around the same time as bitcoin's astonishing ascension to a peak of more than $20,000 in value, leading to an explosion in the crypto market.

Unsurprisingly, such a massive increase was not sustainable for either one. By February, the value of ripple had cratered back down to under a dollar. Since late February, it has yet to reach that $1 mark.

Ripple Wallets

Ripple wallets are similar to bitcoin wallets, with secure keys that allow for transactions. With ripple, though, wallets require a minimum of 20 XRP for the initial deposit.

Like with other cryptocurrency wallets, there are different types, including software wallets and mobile wallets available for Android and iOS. It is most often recommended, however, that you store your ripple (and other cryptocurrencies) in a hardware wallet. Hardware wallets are much more secure because they store the contents offline. One notable hardware manufacturer with a ripple-supporting wallet is Ledger, whose Ledger Nano S wallet allows for ripple.

How to Buy Ripple

Buying ripple is not yet as convenient as buying bitcoin is. Occasionally a cryptocurrency exchange like Bitstamp will allow you to exchange USD for XRP, but rarely is that the case.

Other exchanges that sell ripple, including Coinbase and Binance, will instead need you to exchange a different cryptocurrency like bitcoin or ether in order to acquire XRP. Regardless of the currency you're exchanging for XRP, you'll need an account on the exchange and a ripple wallet where you will send your XRP. Because XRP is supposed to be so notoriously fast, once you have everything in order and initiate the transaction, you should have your XRP relatively quickly. Learn more here in our guide on how to buy XRP.