Move Over, Bitcoin. Ether Is the Digital Currency of the Moment.

Even though most of the people buying Ether and Bitcoin are individual investors, the gains that both have experienced have taken what was until very recently a quirky fringe experiment into the realm of big money. The combined value of all Ether and Bitcoin is now worth more than the market value of PayPal and is approaching the size of Goldman Sachs.

Investors buying Ether are placing a bet that people will want to use the Ethereum network’s computing capabilities and will need the currency to do so. But that is far from a sure thing. And real-world use of the network is still scant.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, has made inroads into mainstream commerce, with companies like Overstock.com and Expedia accepting Bitcoin for purchases, along with the black-market operators who use the currency.

The fact that there are fewer real-world uses for Ethereum has many market experts expecting a crash similar to the ones that have followed previous run-ups in the price of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies. Even during recent pullbacks, though, the value of Ether has generally continued to gain on Bitcoin in relative terms.

Ethereum was launched in the middle of 2015 by a 21-year-old college dropout, Vitalik Buterin, who was born in Russia and raised in Canada. He now lists his residence, jokingly, as Cathay Pacific Airlines because of his travel schedule.

The Ether he holds has made him a millionaire many times over, but he has generally avoided commenting on the price increase in Ether.

Mr. Buterin was inspired by Bitcoin, and the software he built shares some of the same basic qualities. Both are hosted and maintained by the computers of volunteers around the world, who are rewarded for their participation with the new digital tokens that are released onto the network each day.

Because the virtual currencies are tracked and maintained by a network of computers, no government or company is in charge. The prices of both…

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