Fasten Your Seat Belts

My older son was gloating when he showed me the Doonesbury cartoon that mocks bloggers by saying: “If the market really valued what you have to say, wouldn’t someone pay you for it?” It’s a question I have asked myself. So I’m hyper-alert to changes in the all-content-must-be-free mindset, such as a recent Business Week online article entitled “Here come the iTunes of News.”

The article noted that Yahoo and Google have started offering searchers a way to look inside the “vaults” of publishers that charge for content. These publishers, which include market research firms, and big info-clearinghouses like Lexis-Nexis and Factiva, are selling articles ala-carte. Business Week notes that, unlike music which sells for 99 cents a download, the market has not yet set the price for a dollop of content. Even so, writes Business Week’s Sarah Lacy:

“If this trend evolves, it could lay the groundwork for something Web watchers have talked about since the dawn of the commercial Internet — the age of micropayments.” Lacy quotes Yahoo Search vice president Eckart Walther as saying: “We already have the micropayment infrastructure and user registration data. All the pieces are right there.”

I was pointed to the Business Week article by a bit in (the ironically named free-zine) Paid Content. “Don’t hold your breath,” was Paid Content editor Rafat Ali’s reaction to the article.

Being a wishful thinker in this regard, however, I connected that Business Week article with a month-old blurb that I also noticed in Paid Content. It pointed to a new European venture called Digital Payments that claims to “be a first, enabling retailers to manage consumer payments on digital sales channels including digital television, the Internet and mobile phones. Consumers will be able to pay by Direct Debit across these channels for the first time in the same way as they use a credit card.”

Now I’ve written about technology long enough to know that there are many steps between promise and delivery. And even if the system works, there’s no guarantee customers will change their free-downloading ways and use this or any other service to pay for content.

But there are precedents for pervasive changes in behavior. Take automobile seat belts. Vietnam-era defense secretary Robert McNamara introduced them to U.S. cars in the 1950s, but it is only in recent years, and after the passage of mandatory seat belt laws, that people began to routinely buckle up. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 50 years to change habits about paying for content. Nor do I think it will. Things are supposed happen faster in Internet time. I think the speeup rate is about seven-fold speedup.

Meanwhile, do follow Rafat Ali’s advice and breath while you’re waiting. As for eating, the Doonesbury cartoon had some good things to say about the nutritive value (and affordability) of cat food. Fortunately for my voracious teenager, I have so far managed to put better meals on the table. Of course, I’m a PWDJ, so I may not be forced to eat pet food while I wait for the micropayment puzzle pieces to fall into place.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media