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> What am I missing here?> Why has Bitcoin survived this long, and are they likely to make it over the long haul?
Bitcoin is a protocol. It survives as long as people or machines use it.
When you ask "are they likely to make it?", ... remember that there is no corporation, bank, government or organized body that you can refer to as "they". Bitcoin today is the result of mass collaboration around an open system. This is much like how the world wide web looked about the time Marc Andresen helped find its killer app (and that app was the web's graphical browser).
You are right, we already have currency that could work electronically like Bitcoin. However, just as we are seeing in Europe with the bailouts for the banks in Spain (following the bailouts for the banks in Greece, and prior to that the bailouts for the banks in Ireland) the government's solution to the problem is to print more of the currency. Devaluation through the inflation of the money supply is a very harmful action, a medicine worse than the disease. Bitcoin's currency inflation is at a rate predetermined by an algorithm. This algorithm is protected by a massive amount of computing power in what is today the largest distributed computing project (in terms of computing power) in the world.
You mention that you are "leery" of Bitcoin. Because the value of a bitcoin floats against the dollar and other currencies based on a combination of market demand and speculation, there is no guarantee how much it will be worth in the future. But bitcoin doesn't exist just to be a store of value, and can be used to take advantage of its benefits, on a per-transaction basis where there is little exposure to exchange rate risk. Let the speculators worry about that.
There are more and more reasons that Bitcoin is continuing its ascent. Because its fees are trivially low, especially compared to payment card networks, merchants can either pocket the savings or offer a discount to the customer who pays using bitcoins. This is like getting a discount for cash that some gas stations offer. That's just one of the advantages, .. here are more: http://bitcoinmedia.com/bulleted-advantages
Rather than wonder from afar, ... take bitcoin for a trial run. First step is to get yourself a wallet. The fastest way to get started is to use Instawallet. http://Instawallet.org (bookmark the URL so you don't lose it, as you can only access the wallet if you have the URL). Then get yourself a sample of free bitcoins: http://freebitcoins.appspot.com And after you've received your bitcoins from the faucet you'll have those in your wallet, ready to spend when you are ready. Want to share them? Use Coinapult to send the bitcoins you received to someone on their phone (received as an SMS text message) or e-mail. http://www.Coinapult.com
Now remember that everything you just did there, received money, and then sent money, required no accont signup, no confirmation email, no terms of service that you had to agree to. Rememer this the next time you want to pay for something online and remember how simple receiving and sending bitcoins was.