When Bitcoin was created in 2009, it was the only blockchain-based cryptocurrency in the world. If inventor Satoshi Nakamoto had referred to his currency as stones instead of coins, Kriptomat would now be devoted to helping people buy, sell, and store cryptostones and digital pebbles instead of coins and tokens.
Soon after Bitcoin was launched, additional cryptocurrencies began to appear. The new coins had smaller user bases and market capitalization.
That’s when the need for the term “altcoin” appeared.
The word is shorthand for “alternate coin.” The term is appropriately used to refer to any cryptocurrency except Bitcoin.
Strictly speaking, most altcoins are actually tokens, not coins.
The word “coin” refers to a blockchain’s native cryptocurrency, while “token” refers to cryptocurrencies that are based on existing blockchains. A great many cryptocurrencies are implemented as tokens that run on the Ethereum blockchain, for example, drawn to Ethereum because of its support of smart contracts.
But that is a small distinction. As a practical matter, the terms “coin” and “token” are interchangeable.
Still curious about the early days of Bitcoin and altcoins? Here is a quick overview of Bitcoin’s history.