This morning’s Google News is that they’re preparing a micropayments system for online publishers. Actually, it’s a payment system that’s going to be used to take cash from users in return for granting access to various online publications (read URLs, presumably), and most people who know what they’re talking about know that subscriptions is a better model than micropayments, so this is in fact a subscriptions system that can do micropayments. But just as newspaper journalists say “Twitter” when they mean “social media”, online commentators say “micropayments” when they mean “The End of Free.” ‘Twas ever thus.
Anyway, the thing that struck me about this story is that, technically, anyone could have done this at any time in the last decade. eMeta had a technology that did exactly this and which is still in use in some places (it did power 4oD’s payments system, for example, before the archive was opened up and went free).
So this isn’t a technology story – it’s a reach story. What will make this work, if it does work, is Google’s scale. The newspaper industry is never going to get itself together to build something cooperatively. The laughable idea that the British government might do it is barely worthy of a mention but is definitely worth a chuckle.
No, the only way a system like this might work is if it’s put in front of enough users all at once in something like a coherent, planned way. And, I would argue, only Google can do this. Maybe Facebook, one day, but Facebook’s never going to be about monetising attention flow the way Google does.
So, what does this suggest as to the health of the online competitive space, when a key revenue platform which could underpin the future of online publishing might rely on the business planning of a single corporate entity? A while ago, we were all pretty exercised by the idea that Microsoft might control DRM and thus be the gatekeeper to the world’s digital content. That didn’t happen, perhaps thanks to a combination of YouTube, Apple, the MP3 format and self-publishing. But if, in this disaggregated world, only one company can operate at commercial scale, we’ve got a bit of a problem, have we not?