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Microcash and penny candy

One of the greatest unmet promises of the dot.com bubble is microcash — a transaction system that cost-effectively allows for routine transactions of a few cents or less. Sure, there are pockets of microcash activity on specific websites, but none of the ambitious microcash payment systems like National Westminster’s Mondex ever took off in the physical world, much less on the web, and we are stuck with balky, too-expensive credit card payment systems and PayPal.

The absence of a comprehensive microcash system is crimping business models and becoming a crisis. Consider online newspaper sales. Newspapers who no longer wish to offer their readers free access have only one choice — charge a subscription. This is fine for obsessed locals who read every day, but it is a disaster to global news surfers who might drop into a newspaper’s site only once or twice a month. If we had a microcash equivalent of PayPal, then papers could charge by the story, and most importantly make the charge so small (a few cents), that browsing visitors wouldn’t notice, much less object to the microfee. It is a win-win result, the the paper capturing otherwise lost revenue, and the reader being able to see what they want at a sensible price.

But newspapers are just the tip of the iceberg. Microcash would be a boon in the burgeoning podcast world, allowing podcasters to charge nominal download fees sufficient to cover costs and a little profit while not turning off would-be listeners. More importantly, a microcsh system enables a whole new category of casual participants — web-wandering human browsers who felt welcome to drop in, have a look or listen, and move on, all without having to deal with the annoyance of registration, passwords, and the like.

An effective microcash world hearkens back to the age of penny candy, a time when general stores had jars of sweets — jawbreakers, red rope, cinnamon swirls and the like — all lined up on a shelf, and little kids could come in with a few coins, reach in, get what their heart desired and head home with a glassine bag of sweet treasures. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do the same in cyberspace, surrendering a few cyber-pennies to collect a fistful of intellectual treats?