NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON BTCLICK&BUY - Has BT made online payment a reality for web publishers?

Alasdair Reid writes on the prospect of net publishers being paid for information.

You get what you pay for in this life, everybody knows that. Do you expect penetrating insight and great writing from the free newspaper that's pushed through your letterbox every now and then? Of course you don't.

But you do expect top quality for nought on the web. Absolutely you do.

That's because in the dotcom era, commercialisation of the internet was developed using a racy brand of arithmetic clearly inspired by Salvador Dali and the Marx Brothers on mescaline.

The rules of the cyber world also state that you will cheerfully go out of business before admitting you've been wrong - and indeed, the web-only operators who hoped to offer content for nothing have been steadily going out of business for the past couple of years.

The big traditional newspaper and magazine publishers are still there, but even their online struggle of attrition will come to an end at some point if they don't hit on a more lucrative business model.

The problem is that asking people to pay directly for content has always seemed like a hopeless task, largely because the transactional technology has been so crude. In the past it has been an all-or-nothing subscription proposition, tried with extremely limited success by a handful of publishers. The successes have been peripheral - such as newspaper sites asking people to subscribe for access to crosswords.

The business has been so unsubtle because there's been no method of asking for one-off payments -the equivalent of buying a single issue of a publication, or even paying per article read - because credit card transactions are uneconomic when they're valued at a few pence.

What we've always needed is an honest broker that can tot up the dribs and drabs of access time, much in the same way that a telephone company tots up your phone bill. Somebody such as BT.

So maybe it's time to break out the bunting - because, at last, it might just be about to happen. In a couple of weeks time, the telecoms giant launches a micro payment system called BTclick&buy. Could this be a defining moment for online publishers?

Simon Waldman, the director of digital publishing at Guardian Unlimited, seems slightly lukewarm. He emphasises that he welcomes any new form of payment system - but this is not exactly a major earthquake. "You have to step back and see this within a broader context, he argues. "It would be wrong to see micro payment systems as a panacea."

And actually, perhaps surprisingly, he seems to hold out hope for the subscription model in some form. "Subscriptions need not be seen as large hurdles, he says. "They can be reasonably priced."

His analogy is with Internet Service Providers. With ISPs, the early model was based largely on micro payments - there was a telephony charge every time you accessed the net through a dial up modem - but now the market is coming full circle, especially where broadband is concerned. You pay a subscription for unlimited access - and people like the fact that they know in advance what they will be paying.

That seems to be echoed by many publishers, who feel that micro payment systems are all well and good, but may come to be seen as the intermediary stage, with subscription still the main prize.

Hugo Drayton, the managing director of Hollinger Telegraph New Media, says he welcomes increased flexibility to charge for content. He adds: "People have been offering free trials as an inducement to full subscriptions and this offers the opportunity to go beyond that. What we won't see is an attempt to extract a micro payment for everything - that would be nonsensical. You won't be asked to pay tomorrow for something that's free today. But it might help get people into the habit of paying."

The bottom line, surely, is will the new micro payment system be adopted rapidly by publishers?

"The issue is not so much about technically whether the system will work, but whether people can find ways to use it creatively, Drayton says.

But aren't there potential downsides for advertisers? For instance, the publishers most likely to be earlier adopters of this new system are almost by definition the most popular destinations on the net - you've got to have a lot of traffic to feel confident about monetising it. And because they're popular destinations they tend to be popular with advertisers - who will surely object if publishers adopt the new system in a ham-fisted way, thus damaging the traffic numbers.

There's not much chance of that, argues Charlie Dobres, the chief executive of i-level. He believes that publishers have learned from early mistakes in trying to implement subscription systems.

"We have to be able to replicate consumer behaviour. When someone buys a newspaper from a newsstand, that's a micro payment. Subscription is not the way that most people buy newspapers, he says.

Dobres also feels it's good that it's a BT system - the BT name will give everyone confidence. And the timing is good because it is arriving as the broadband uptake curve continues to rise. Dobres agrees that this might be seen as a stepping stone technology. "The gatekeepers may well have to re-examine their business models, but I really can't see a downside, he states.

Waldman agrees that the timing is good. But like Drayton, he argues that technology doesn't always deliver solutions by and of itself.

"I think everybody's been looking at re-engineering their business models in the context of charging for content, but micro payments will only be part of that mix. It will suit some kinds of content and not others. The real issue is the depth of relationship you have with the consumer, he concludes.

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