Just like that, Ripple's market cap now exceeds that of Bitcoin. There are a lot of people asking just what the heck is going on, and of course, trying to figure out if this is just another digital currency bubble.
Taking into consideration the total number of Ripples (XRP), that is, 100 billion, and the current exchange rate of approximately 70 XRP/USD, the XRP market cap is $1.43 billion USD. Bitcoin's market cap is currently $1.30 billion USD.
Clearly the XRP exchange rate has been influenced by the limited supply of XRP. The question is, how many are actually "floating" and how many have been locked away by OpenCoin and the founders?
We do know that the founders have retained 20 billion XRP, and that OpenCoin controls 80 billion XRP. Of that 80 billion, 50 billion are being "given away," though how that is happening is a bit of an unknown. It's likely that giveaways like the one we saw on the bitcointalk.org forum are the exception and not the rule. OpenCoin is probably paying developers in large lots of XRP to help build Ripple's infrastructure and applications.
Six days ago, someone put together a spreadsheet that lists all non-zero Ripple accounts and their XRP holdings. From this list, we can make some educated guesses:
There are 99.25 billion XRP in the top 55 accounts, with the smallest one holding 40 million XRP. These are likely OpenCoin holdings or those of major investors. We can safely assume that none of these coins are in circulation.
There are another 17 accounts with exactly 10 million XRP that, again, are not likely in circulation. That brings the total number of "institutionally held" XRP to 99.42 billion.
The total number of XRP that are actually being bought and sold right now is therefore in the 500 million range. At 70 XRP to the USD, they would be worth just over $7 million USD, a realistic estimate of how much fiat and BTC has been deposited into Ripple.
Account number nine on the spreadsheet is of great interest, as it appears as one of the nine billion XRP accounts, but one that has been drawn down by 1.421 billion XRP. What is this account being used for? Perhaps for actual giveaways, or for selling Ripples to re-sellers such as BitStamp or xrptrader.com.
Sources tell me that, in the same vein as what has been happening with Bitcoin, Chinese investors have shown great interest in Ripple, and are responsible for a non-trivial fraction of the recent rise in XRP valuation.
So what is Ripple actually worth? As a protocol, it has Bitcoin beat hands down. Remember that most merchants do not accept Bitcoin directly, instead, they use services like BitPay to instantly convert Bitcoins to fiat. A good portion of Bitcoin's utility is as a protocol, not as a store of value. We will probably see much of Bitcoin's protocol-driven business move into Ripple as additional gateways, like the soon-to-be open Kraken, come online. If Ripple's "Federation Protocol" gains traction, we could very easily see a market cap in excess of $10 billion USD within a year.
Remember that Ripple's key investors have connections to PayPal and Dwolla, and will want to bring them on as Ripple Gateways. Such a move would boost Ripple's valuation well into the stratosphere, leaving Bitcoin behind as a beta-version afterthought.
Expect to see some interesting discussion, debate, and hopefully some big revelations at this year's Ripple... err... Bitcoin Conference in San Jose in two weeks. With the drama surrounding CoinBase and MtGox, and the explosion of interest in Ripple, the timing couldn't be better.