I was just reading one of the articles I found linked in the post below from Rick Klau's weblog - on the topic of micropayments as a feasible method for supporting online content.
The author of the piece says that for micropayments to work they'll need to become invisible, not something you're constantly clicking on to okay a payment. Sorta like the way the phone bill works or your electricity. It just pops up increment by increment as you go. The author - Jakob Nielsen - also gives a big thumbs down to subscriptions and advertisements. He says they'll never work, except in a few cases where special circumstances apply.
As the editor, chief writer, and CEO of Talking Points Memo, this whole issue is of more than academic concern to me. And I'd like to see a way for small sites to support themselves. Somehow, though, this vision of how the web will function just seems off to me. (TPM accepts contributions to help defray the expense of running the site. And by all means make a contribution! But if TPM were run on a balance sheet it would have stopped publishing long, long ago.)
Way back when in the early 1990s, unless you were a college student, you had to buy connectivity by the hour. Maybe a hundred hours a month for some reasonable fee. Or if you had a service like AOL you literally paid by the hour. Eventually, competition and experience changed the business model and pretty much all ISPs went over to some sort of flat rate.
Certainly, there were many reasons that went into the change. But for my part at least having a meter running on your web usage took much of the pleasure out of the experience. I found a similar frustration with online services like AOL or CompuServe where there were different fees for looking at different material or using different services. One other problem with paying a small fee for every individual thing you look at is that, for me at least, the vast majority of things I click on to look at I don't stay to read. I give a quick glance and I'm off.
For my money, far better to just pay a flat fee. The issue is not the aggregate expense. It's having concern over price and expense creeping into the process of hopping around the 'net and finding new info here and there.
It's true that phone service operates by a sort of micropayments system, but only for long-distance. And I suspect that's a legacy of the now bygone era when calling long distance was a sort of extravagance. Or at least not something done without a second thought as it is today. For local service, we pretty much all opt for the flat rate, in part I suspect to avoid the annoyance of having the meter running or just needing to think about it at all.
In any case, this invisible micropayment vision of the web's future is not one that seems inviting to me in the least. For all the difficulties people have encountered, I suspect ads are still the future of selling content online. The recent proliferation of pop-ads - especially from prestige sites like the New York Times - could not be more annoying. And I hope and suspect there will be some backlash.
But the more I think about it, the economics of selling web content, for better and worse, seems quite like that of other media.