A ‘Fork’ in the most basic sense, is an alteration of a blockchains protocol which is used to determine if a transaction is valid or not. This results in a Hard fork or a Soft fork. Both of which produce different results for the coins in question.
Forks tend to occur when the developers of a blockchain decide something fundamental about it needs to be changed, or the user base of a currency or project, would like to see it evolve in a different direction. Forks often have a large impact, and can sometimes result in an alternative currency being created.
Hard forks and Soft forks do practically the same thing, they change existing code on a blockchain. Both forks create a split on said blockchain when this occurs, however, soft forks are backwards compatible, where hard forks create two separate blockchains.
Example - Bitcoin Cash
Bitcoin Cash is an example of a Hard Fork. As Bitcoin Cash does not operate on the same blockchain to Bitcoin, rather a parallel one. They will both continue to create blocks, but they will not be on the same network. Essentially, this means that once the fork has been created, the original blockchain will continue on the path it was already following, while the second blockchain will follow a new path with a new set of rules.
Where a soft fork will still operate on the same blockchain but may change a rule in such a way that it is still compatible with that network's rules. Normally these soft forks will not produce a separate currency for the holders of the coin compared to Hard Forks.
Example - Bitcoin Segwit Update
The SegWit upgrade to the Bitcoin Blockchain is a good example of a Soft fork. The SegWit upgrade occurred in 2017 and was activated in order to improve Bitcoins scalability and flexibility. This was done without creating a new token or blockchain.
It is important to keep up to date with the news surrounding coins or tokens that you hold. If a Hard Fork occurs without your knowledge you may either; not receive coins that you are potentially entitled to, or, receive a shock when receiving new coins deposited into your wallet.
A Soft Fork is a tightening of the blockchains rules. As a result once the rules are tightened, it is very hard to roll back without a Hard Fork occurring. It is important to keep informed and aware of any updates development teams are realising regarding network upgrades or forks as this can often affect the value and function of the underlying currencies.
Forks of all kinds are extremely important to the longevity of any crypto project. They allow coin developers to update their networks and systems in response to the needs of the currency or project and respond to feedback from the community and it’s users. Forks allow developers to integrate new technology when it is created and ensure that this can be done without a centralised body which allows the space to maintain its decentralised nature.