Haven't been around crypto in a few years, how has Cardano progressed?

Stopped following around 2018.

For people who were around back then…how would you sum up the last 4-5 years?

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There were a few delays and there will be a few more delays in the future but overall we made some really decent progress and the network is running since around ~5 years without any downtimes.

There are already 3 of the 5 development phases done and Basho is coming to an end soon.

Overall im pretty bullish but there are still some major issues to overcome. I think Voltaire with the decentralized governance is one of the most difficult phases to achieve but i do think that we are going to be able to do that, even if we need some more time as predicted.

At 2020-07-29, there was the Shelley hardfork. We have new kinds of addresses, delegation to stake pools, and stake pool operators since then.

If your ADA are still on Byron addresses, you will perhaps want to move them, since most of the independent wallet apps cannot deal with Byron anymore and even Yoroi only has read-only and move to your Shelley wallet left as options, while Daedalus has become quite hard to use due to disk usage approaching 100 GiB and sync times in the range of hours or even days. But there are quite a lot good alternative wallet apps – Eternl, Typhon, Flint, …

You can delegate your ADA to a stake pool and if that stake pool produces blocks in an epoch, you will get rewards for that delegation. There are more than 3000 stake pools, but roughly half of them never produce any blocks. They have to attract a lot of stake (a few hundred thousand, better millions of ADA) to reliably be selected for block production. A hurdle that is often ignored before starting a stake pool.

So, consensus is mostly decentralised in Cardano, now (although there are always discussions that the exchanges have too much stake and such). But development is still pretty much centralised at IOG. Everybody is waiting for them to announce and publish their decisions, where Cardano will head next. According to a recent video by Charles Hoskinson, this shall be decentralised a little bit by some “merit-based” council in the coming months, but we are far from the vision stated for the Voltaire era even with that one.

As a preparation for Voltaire, the Catalyst funds (linking a community site there, because the official sites aren’t that good as an introduction) are distributed by community votes every couple of months. Registration for voting is done on the Cardano blockchain, but the votes themselves are still on a non-public side chain that we cannot audit. The voting app is not that great and the results largely correlate with the community advisor assessments giving the proposals a star rating before the vote. It is planned that for the next(?) round, there shall be delegations so that voters do not have to assess all the proposals themselves, but “just” have to find a representative that they can trust.

Since 2021-03-01, with the Mary hardfork, we have “native tokens” and can mint and burn arbitrary tokens and NFTs and send and store them along our ADA. And since 2021-09-12, the Alonzo hardfork, we also have smart contracts.

This has led to a collection of NFT marketplaces – cnft.io, jpg.store, Artifct, Tokhun, … – and decentralised exchanges – MuesliSwap, SundaeSwap, MinSwap, Wingriders, … – being started. But, frankly, most tokens are way down since the hype of the beginning of this year, even measured in ADA, which itself is additionally way down measured in EUR or USD.

And in addition to the legitimate tokens, which also have a hard time selling their more or less convincing value propositions, there are also loads of outright scams: Acardex is a fraud, updated list of related scam projects

Sometime in the near future, there will be the Vasil hardfork, which gives some improvements, but no brand-new features like the last three.

Also in the pipeline is the Djed stablecoin, which is developed by COTI based on a design by some people from IOG together with some from Ergo and Emurgo.

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LOL! 1 year in Crypto is like 10 years in the regular world!