There is a constant flow of articles in the media, explaining why micropayments have been tried many times since the earliest days of the internet and have always failed. The arguments are then developed along the lines that having failed in the past micropayments will therefore never work in the future. These arguments fail to take into consideration a number of factors, not least, technological development, changing attitudes to not paying for content and economic realities.
I also wonder if micropayments are doomed not to succeed, why does a week not pass by without some expert feeling it necessary to write about the futility of the efforts of those developing micropayment systems –
“The lady doth protest too much, me thinks” ¹.
One reason commentators like to roll out when beating this particular drum is something called “mental transaction costs”. This is the energy required to decide whether something is worth buying or not, regardless of price.
The thing is, it is not as simple as this. Of course we all consider the price of something before deciding whether something is worth buying but the amount of effort we put into this, is also a function of our ability to pay as well as the price. Something which we might expend energy thinking about purchasing when we are a poor student, doesn’t warrant a second thought when we have a regular income.
If we find content creators ( music, games, writing, research…….. ) whom we like, or are recommended to us by people we trust, most people will not think twice about making payments of 10p – 50p. If they don’t like what they purchased they may well berate their friends and not buy anything more from this particular content creator and if they like what they purchase they will be back for more and more importantly recommend the particular content creator to their friends.
The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit. Milton Friedman ²
The real reason why micropayments failed to take off in the past was not so called “Mental transaction costs” but the amount of friction involved in authorising the payment. No one is going to go through the rigmarole of entering a password and a load of personal data to authorise a transaction of 50p. Such transactions need to be capable of being authorised with 1 or 2 clicks maximum.
From the consumer’s perspective, what is needed is either a form of Webpurse into which a sum of money is preloaded and from which individual payments are made or a method of accumulating transactions and then paying for them once a month or when they have accumulated to a reasonable size. Such systems already exist but unfortunately they are not universal in that they usually lock you into a particular middleman’s walled garden as with Apple’s on-line stores.
What these systems do however demonstrate is that micropayments are here and here to stay. This is ably demonstrated by the multi-million dollar market for in-games payments, the large and growing market for virtual products using virtual currencies and of course the Apple stores.
¹ Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 111, scene 11
² Milton Friedman was an American economist, statistician, and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics