Thursday, May 19, 2005

Time To Revisit Micropayments?

"Micropayments" were part of the Boom's lexicon. But they never really went much of anywhere. Instead, everything was "free"--either in the frequently forlorn hope of charging later or in the often deluded hope that it would be paid for by advertising or some other deus ex machina.

We've ended up in this sort of binary state as a result. The free (perhaps with annoying registration) and true subscription. That's a bit of an oversimplification of course. A site like Nerve has both free and premium content. A site like Salon offers various forms of free access in exchange for watching commercials. But, close enough for government work. But, in general, it holds. We've got sites that are largely free and sites that charge subsriptions--often in the neighborhood of $25 to $50 per year--that exceed what I pay for most of my magazines.

And $1 an aricle? Forget about it unless your audience is mostly well-financed paid researchers. That's not a micropayment. That's a midi-payment--just like buying a song is. Perhaps not a major purchase, but something that you'll think about, or as the ever-interesting Clay Shirky calls it, a transaction cost. (I'm not sure that I agree with Clay that free is the only way to go, but I certainly agree that payments large enough to make you think about them are a real inhibitor.)

Perhaps we need to look again seriously at micropayments. In the cents per transaction range--and, perhaps, implemented as subscriptions that span sites rather than per-transaction decisions. Hard? Sure. But the alternative may well be a dichotomy of free sites and sites that hardly anyone has access to or reads.

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