In a nutshell, Cosmos bills itself as a project that solves some of the “hardest problems” facing the blockchain industry. It aims to offer an antidote to “slow, expensive, unscalable and environmentally harmful” proof-of-work protocols, like those used by Bitcoin, by offering an ecosystem of connected blockchains.
The Cosmos network consists of many independent, parallel blockchains, called zones, each powered by classical Byzantine fault-tolerant (BFT) consensus protocols like Tendermint (already used by platforms like ErisDB). Some zones act as hubs with respect to other zones, allowing many zones to interoperate through a shared hub. The architecture is a more general application of the Bitcoin sidechains concept, using classic BFT and Proof-of-Stake algorithms, instead of Proof-of-Work. Cosmos can interoperate with multiple other applications and cryptocurrencies, something other blockchains can’t do well. By creating a new zone, you can plug any blockchain system into the Cosmos hub and pass tokens back and forth between those zones, without the need for an intermediary.
While the Cosmos Hub is a multi-asset distributed ledger, there is a special native token called the atom. Atoms have three use cases: as a spam-prevention mechanism, as staking tokens, and as a voting mechanism in governance.
As a spam prevention mechanism, Atoms are used to pay fees. The fee may be proportional to the amount of computation required by the transaction, similar to Ethereum’s concept of “gas”. Fee distribution is done in-protocol and a protocol specification is described here.