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Understanding Token Standards in Cryptocurrency: ERC-20 and ERC-721

The concept of token standards, particularly ERC-20 and ERC-721, has revolutionized how digital assets are created, exchanged, and conceptualized, paving the way for a diverse array of applications far beyond mere currency exchange.


What is ERC? A Dive into Ethereum Request for Comments

Ethereum Request for Comments (ERC) is a system that fosters the development and implementation of standards within the Ethereum ecosystem. ERCs are proposals submitted by developers and community members, outlining new standards for various Ethereum-related functions. This process involves a rigorous discussion and review before a proposal can be accepted and transformed into a standard. The most prominent among these standards are ERC-20 and ERC-721, each playing a pivotal role in defining the functionalities and expanding the possibilities of the Ethereum blockchain.

The Concept of Fungibility and Non-Fungibility

To understand the significance of ERC-20 and ERC-721, it’s important to grasp the concepts of fungibility and non-fungibility. Fungible items, like traditional currencies, for example, are interchangeable, as each unit holds the same value. In contrast, non-fungible items are unique and cannot be exchanged on a like-for-like basis, like a piece of art or a collectible item. This distinction is crucial in the world of digital assets, where the line between the fungible and non-fungible can redefine the value and utility of a token.

ERC-20 Tokens: The Backbone of Fungible Digital Assets

ERC-20 emerged as a necessary evolution to address the lack of standardization in early Ethereum tokens. Before its introduction, developers faced challenges due to the diverse nature of the tokens created on Ethereum's blockchain, each with its own set of rules and behaviors. This lack of uniformity made it difficult for these tokens to interact seamlessly with one another, hindering the development and adoption of decentralized applications.

The ERC-20 standard, proposed in late 2015, established a common set of rules that all Ethereum-based tokens could follow. This standardization includes a defined set of functionalities that tokens must have, such as methods to transfer tokens, to check the balance of tokens in an account, and to approve the use of tokens by another account. By adhering to these rules, ERC-20 tokens can interact with one another within the Ethereum ecosystem, ensuring compatibility with wallets, exchanges, and other smart contracts.

Fungibility is a key aspect of ERC-20 tokens. A fungible asset is something that can be exchanged on a one-to-one basis with another asset of the same type. Think of fiat currencies like the dollar or the euro; one dollar bill has the same value and can be exchanged for another dollar bill seamlessly. This property is intrinsic to ERC-20 tokens, making them ideal for representing traditional financial instruments like currencies, stocks, or commodities in the digital realm.

Finally, it's crucial to distinguish between ERC-20 tokens and native assets like Ether (ETH), Ethereum's own cryptocurrency. Ether is the fuel that powers the Ethereum network, used to compensate miners for processing transactions and smart contracts. While Ether is integral to the Ethereum blockchain itself, ERC-20 tokens are built on top of the Ethereum blockchain. They use Ethereum's infrastructure and leverage its security, but they are not native to the system.

ERC-20 tokens are second-class citizens, created and managed by smart contracts, which are self-executing pieces of code that define the functioning of these assets. These tokens can represent various digital or real-world assets and have their own value, independent of the value of Ether. However, to conduct a transaction with ERC-20 tokens on the Ethereum network, users still must spend Ether to pay transaction fees.

The Impact of ERC-20 on the Crypto Ecosystem

The introduction of ERC-20 had a wide-reaching impact on the crypto ecosystem. It paved the way for the Initial Coin Offering (ICO) boom in 2017, where many projects and startups raised funds by issuing their own ERC-20 tokens. This standard has also been fundamental in the growth of decentralized finance (DeFi) applications, enabling the creation of a wide range of financial instruments on the Ethereum blockchain.

In summary, ERC-20 tokens are a critical component of the Ethereum ecosystem, offering a standardized, fungible format for digital assets. Their distinction from native assets like Ether, combined with their flexibility and interoperability, has enabled a diverse range of applications and has significantly contributed to the growth and innovation in the blockchain space.

ERC-721 Tokens: Pioneering the World of Non-Fungible Assets

Introduced in early 2018, the ERC-721 standard opened the doors to the world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Each ERC-721 token is unique, indivisible, and represents ownership of a specific digital asset. This standard has been instrumental in the rise of digital collectibles, art, and gaming items, offering a way to authenticate and transfer ownership of unique digital items securely. While ERC-721 tokens have unlocked immense creative and financial possibilities, they come with their own set of challenges, including higher transaction costs and complexity in management compared to ERC-20 tokens.


As blockchain technology continues to evolve, so will its token standards. ERC-20 tokens are expected to remain a staple for fungible assets, while ERC-721 and emerging token standards will likely gain traction in representing unique digital assets. The convergence of these standards with other technologies like AI and IoT heralds a future where digital ownership and asset management are more dynamic, secure, and integrated into our digital lives.