For a security blog, this is a little off topic. I recommend you stop reading if you consider my fascination with payment processing tiresome.

Do any of you remember Project Xanadu? It was a precursosr to the world wide web, and envisioned as a way you could share documents and research. As I understand it, the project that died from trying to realize too many good ideas at once, and collapsed under the weight of its expectations. One of the ideas that came out of this project was the concept of micro-payments. I have spoken with team members from this project during its various phases, and been told that a micro-payment engine was being designed during the mid-90s to accommodate content providers who demanded they be paid to make their research available. I never did review the code released in 1998, so this is pure hearsay, or urban legend, or whatever you want to call it. Still, when word got out we working on a micro-payment engine at Transactor in 1997, there were warnings that people would not pay for content. In fact, the lesson seemed to be that much of the success of the web was due to the vast green fields of free information and community participation without cost.

A lot has changed, but I still get that nagging feeling when I read about how Google’s proposed Micropayment System is going to help save publishers. Personally, I don’t think it will work. Not for the publishers. Not when the competitors give quality information away for free. Not when most users are reticent to even register, much less pay.

But if a micropayment engine provides Google greater access to unique content, especially as it relates to newspapers, they win regardless. It becomes like Gmail in reverse. And on the flip side it extends the reach of their technology, establishing a financial relationship with everyday web users. Even if they don’t make a dime from sales commissions, it’s a brilliant idea as it promotes their existing business model. I told them as much in 2005 when I went through the second most bizarre interview process in my career. They have been playing footsie with this product idea for a long time and I have not figured out why they have been so slow to get a ‘beta’ product out there.

There is room for competition and innovation in payment processing, but I remain convinced that micropayment has limited use cases, and news feeds is not a viable one.