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Micropayments: size matters

by Giles Turnbull -- 2001/01/11

Clay Shirky says that micropayments are doomed because "users hate them" (see our previous story). But cartoonist Scott McCloud thinks they definitely have a future. Who's right?

One important factor that both of them address - but in different ways - is the expected size of a micropayment, and this is important.

Shirky refers to no-one wanting to have to stop and think about having to pay a few cents to see the next page.

But McCloud makes a point of referring to micropayments as a way of passing on to the consumer the savings that online publishers make from avoiding the printing press.

Shirky writes:

The very micro-ness of micropayments makes them confusing. At the very least, users will be persistently puzzled over the conflicting messages of "This is worth so much you have to decide whether to buy it or not" and "This is worth so little that it has virtually no cost to you."

And in his book, Reinventing Comics, McCloud says:

Sooner or later, micropayments are bound to come into their own. After all, the cost of any of these operations, old or new, is ultimately just a function of bandwidth and processor speed.

The size of each micropayment is a very important factor.

If online publishers can keep charges low, there need not be this pressure on users to consider each payment so carefully.

And when I say low, I mean low. Perhaps fractions of cents for news stories, maybe a couple of cents for more in-depth features.

No-one can rely on advertising to pay for online content.

Increasingly, it seems that advertising is demonstrating that it has nowhere to go. That's because users have not only learned to ignore it, but have now reached the stage where they do not even have to think about doing so.