But disagreements within the Bitcoin community are being watched closely by central bankers and financial industry executives. The titans of finance are monitoring Bitcoin’s successes and failures as they experiment with its technological concepts, like the ledger for recording virtual currency transactions, known as the blockchain.
Many large institutions have said they hope to integrate blockchain technology into their designs for the world’s future financial infrastructure, and those designs are likely to be influenced by what is learned from Bitcoin.
“People are looking at this in part because they see the beginnings of a new financial system — a financial system that has a very different structure than the one we have right now,” said Neha Narula, the director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mr. Lee and others hope Bitcoin can be used for payments someday, but he thinks that will most likely come from software that is built on top of Bitcoin, not the Bitcoin network itself.
Not everyone agrees with Mr. Lee’s position. Many entrepreneurs and academics think virtual currencies will gain traction only if they are easy and cheap to send around. The disagreement has given rise to a host of Bitcoin competitors — including a separate virtual currency known as Bitcoin Cash.
But the community that has developed around the original Bitcoin has increasingly been united around a vision that is focused on its goldlike qualities, rather than its ability to compete with PayPal or Western Union.
“The reason people own Bitcoin is because it’s a great store of value, possibly the greatest that has ever existed,” said Jimmy Song, a developer who has contributed to the Bitcoin software. “You can send money to Africa in 10 minutes, but that’s not the main reason people buy it.”
When Bitcoin was introduced in 2008, the title of the paper written by its creator, the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, called the currency an “electronic cash system.”
The Bitcoin software created a decentralized network of computers that anyone with internet access could join, making it easy to send Bitcoins between addresses. And Bitcoin first gained public notice because of its use as anonymous digital cash on black-market websites like the Silk Road.
But the number of people using Bitcoin to buy things…