A micropayment is a financial transaction involving a very small sum of money and usually one that occurs online. A number of micropayment systems were proposed and developed in the mid-to-late 1990s, all of which were ultimately unsuccessful. A second generation of micropayment systems emerged in the 2010s.
While micropayments were originally envisioned to involve very small sums of money, practical systems to allow transactions of less than US$1 have seen little success. One problem that has prevented the emergence of micropayment systems is a need to keep costs for individual transactions low, which is impractical when transacting such small sums even if the transaction fee is just a few cents.
There are a number of different definitions of what constitutes a micropayment. PayPal defines a micropayment as a transaction of less than £5 while Visa defines it as a transaction under 20 Australian dollars.
The term was coined by Ted Nelson, long before the invention of the World Wide Web. Initially this was conceived as a way to pay the various copyright holders of a compound work. Micropayments, on the Web, were initially devised as a way of allowing the sale of online content and as a way to pay for very low cost network services. They were envisioned to involve small fractions of a cent, as little as US$0.0001 to a few cents. Micropayments would enable people to sell content on the Internet and would be an alternative to advertising revenue. During the late 1990s, there was a movement to create microtransaction standards, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) worked on incorporating micropayments into HTML even going as far as to suggest the embedding of payment-request information in HTTP error codes. The W3C has since stopped its efforts in this area, and micropayments have not become a widely used method of selling content over the Internet.
Early research and systems
In the late 1990s, established companies like IBM and Compaq had microtransaction divisions, and research on micropayments and micropayment standards was performed at Carnegie Mellon and by the World Wide Web Consortium.
IBM Micro Payments
IBM's Micro Payments was established c. 1999, and were it to have become operational would have "allowed vendors and merchants to sell content, information, and services over the Internet for amounts as low as one cent".
An early attempt at making micropayments work, iPIN was a 1998 venture-capital-funded startup that provided services that allowed purchasers to add incremental micropayment charges to their existing bill for Internet services. Debuting in 1999, its service was never widely adopted.
Millicent, originally a project of Digital Equipment Corporation, was a micropayment system that was to support transactions from as small as 1/10 of a cent up to $5.00. It grew out of The Millicent Protocol for Inexpensive Electronic Commerce, which was presented at the 1995 World Wide Web Conference in Boston, but the project became associated with Compaq after that company purchased Digital Equipment Corporation. The payment system employed symmetric cryptography.
The NetBill electronic commerce project at Carnegie Mellon university researched distributed transaction processing systems and developed protocols and software to support payment for goods and services over the Internet. It featured pre-paid accounts from which micropayment charges could be drawn. NetBill was initially absorbed by CyberCash in 1997 and ultimately taken over by PayPal.
The term micropayment or microtransaction is sometimes attributed to the sale of virtual goods in online games, most commonly involving an in-game currency or service bought with real world money and only available within the online game.
Current systems either allow many micropayments but charge the user's phone bill one lump sum or use funded wallets.
Flattr is a micropayment system (more specifically, a microdonation system) which launched in August 2010. Actual bank transactions and overhead costs are involved only on funds withdrawn from the recipient's accounts.
Jamatto is a micropayments and microsubscriptions system that allows websites and publishers to accept payments as small as 1c by modifying just their HTML source code Jamatto is in use by newspapers across three continents.
A service provided by TIMWE, M-Coin allows users to make micropayments on the Internet. The user's phone bill is then charged by the mobile network operator.
PayPal MicroPayments is a micropayment system that charges payments to user's PayPal account and allows transactions of less than US$12 to take place. As of 2013, the service is offered in selected currencies only. The PayPal charge for a micropayment from a U.S. account is a flat five cents per transaction plus five percent of the transaction (as compared with PayPal's normal 2.9% and 30 cents for larger sums).
Swish is a payment system between bank accounts in Sweden. It is designed for small instant transactions between people, instead of using cash (cash has largely dropped in use in Sweden since 2010), but is also used by small businesses such as sports clubs that don't want to deal with the cost of a credit card reader. A cell phone number is used as a unique user identifier, and must have been registered at a Swedish bank. A smartphone app is used to send money, but any cell phone can be used as a receiver. The lowest permitted payment is 1 SEK (around €0.11) and the highest is 10,000 (around €1,100), although 150,000 SEK can be transferred if the transaction is preregistered in the internet bank. The fee is generally zero for private people, but when the receiver is an organisation e.g. sports club or company, there is fee of 2 SEK, which is considered significant if a sports club sells coffee and cookies at an event. Swish has become popular, with 50% of the Swedish population registered as users in 2016.
Blendle is an online news platform that aggregates articles from a variety of newspapers and magazines and sells them on a pay-per-article basis, leading Nieman Lab to describe it as a "micropayments-for-news pioneer". It operates in the Netherlands, Germany and the US. In 2019, five years after its launch, it announced that it would change its business model away from micropayments to premium subscriptions. Nieman Lab commented that "micropayments keep not panning out".
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