Micropayments: What Portable Devices May Bring

Amid the tablet hype is an interesting article from Derek Powazek – http://powazek.com/posts/2234:

“”” I’ve been thinking about how to make money from online content since I launched Fray in 1996. Really, I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve sat up, obsessed with it. It’s been my white whale. And here’s what I’ve come up with: a little bit of advertising works, so long as it’s classy, and sell some paper if you can. But any plan that includes walling off your content from the rest of the web is destined to fail, unless it’s porn of some kind (financial data is a kind of porn).

Why? It’s not because everyone online is a cheapskate. It’s because consuming content offline is still a much better experience. Leafing through a glossy magazine is simply sexier than clicking through a PDF


Apple could release a device that makes consuming media fun, is able to show any PDF beautifully (just like the iPod would play any MP3), and offers new media for sale in the iTunes store. If they did it right, publishers like me might finally be able to sell something digital that people would actually buy. “””

Powazek is getting at some kind of payment for premium tablet-formatted content. I’m not too sure it could work, but it does make me think about micropayments.

Most of the talk about content is about buying books and subscribing to newspapers. Those are traditional business models applied to the web – paying hundreds or thousands of cents. Even that would be an improvement for publishers, who are forced to rely on ads right now.

But what if Apple took the in-app payment model and applied it to microcontent? Built that sort of thing into the core browser and viewing software? You’d end up with something like Jakib Neilson’s 1998 vision of micropayments (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/paymentinterfaces.html) – and note he’s talking about touch-screen gestures:

“”” Very cheap costs of maybe less than a cent per page would be invisible in the user interface. If it would cost half a cent to follow a link, then that link should probably be shown in exactly the same way as free links. The time to consider the payment would be more expensive than the payment itself, so the payment should be hidden for the user (except, obviously, for appearing on the monthly statement from the payment service).

Slightly more expensive costs of maybe 1-10 cents per page could be visualized by a simple glyph, a slight color change for the link, or by having the cursor show the cost as a pop-up when the user points to the link. It would also be reasonable for the user’s computer to contact a reputation service to gather information about other users’ experience with the link: If most other users felt that the destination page was not worth the cost, then a dialog box stating that fact should be shown if the user tries to activate the link. If the destination page has a good reputation rating, then it would be a waste of time to show the dialog box, and the user would be taken directly to the page if he or she activated the link.

Expensive pages costing more than maybe 10 cents would always require the user to click “OK” in a confirmation dialog before the cost was incurred.

Very expensive actions costing more than maybe $10 would require a different interaction technique than simply clicking an OK button since users often do so automatically without reading the warning text. An unusual interaction should be employed to make it clear to the user that a major expense was about to be authorized. The figure shows one of our ideas for a way of authorizing a payment: the system would show an image of a check with the cost and payee filled in. The user would authorize the payment by a sweeping gesture across the signature field, which would cause a digitized image of the user’s signature to appear. Ideally, the sweeping gesture would be done by actually touching the user’s hand to the screen, but it would also be possible to use a mouse gesture on systems without a touch screen. “””

There would also need to be some settings to cap daily spending and perhaps cap spending on a particular domain.

Will Apple do it? Probably not on Day 1. There’s much more low-hanging fruit. But they do have all the pieces in place to do it some day – they control mobile safari and the surrounding OS, the platform has users’ trust, and most importantly, they can charge micropayments seamlessly.

Will others do it? I hope so. I’d love to see this experiment play out.

Will it work? Yes, I think there’s something here. Powazek says walled content isn’t possible on the web, and his solution is that user’s will pay for a premium view of the content. I’m saying walled content could work if it was embedded into the fabric of the web and it gave you Powazek’s premium view. You could imagine a free, high-quality, article on the league website about tomorrow’s football final. It lists all the players, along with a thumbnail. Clicking on any player will set you back 10 cents – the browser subtly indicates it without obtrusively confirming with you when you click. For the 10 cents, you’ll get a tablet-customised view of your player. It hooks into phone settings – you can save the picture as your screen saver and switch your voicemail prompt to be a recording from the player. (This is much cheaper than it would cost if it were a standalone app today, but the app store itself shows that selling lots of cheap units may be a more profitable strategy than a few expensive units.) And it hooks into other apps – sports geeks can export the player’s stats into their spreadsheet app.

What lives at the URL of premium tablet content, when you’re not viewing it on a tablet? That’s the million-dollar question. On the one hand, you could say nothing, but then purists will argue it’s not part of the conversation and people won’t end up visiting it. Fair point, though I think there could still be enough interest if the landing page is high-quality enough to attract links and search results. On the other hand, the ideal thing is really progressive enhancement: the page still lives, the content is the same, but the tablet renders it. The good thing is the flexibility: website owners could make their own mind up about how to degrade, and the market will eventually learn what’s best.

People will pay a lot for content in the right form. A few years ago, the same teenagers who refused to pay for high-quality renderings of their favourite bands songs, were the same teenagers who forked out big bucks for rubbish-quality ringtones. If the tablet is a fun device to hold and surf, people will pay for tablet-formatted content.

One of the problems with a plain-old subscription model is it goes against the model of the web as a series of interconnected nodes. It’s silo-based. A micropayment model, where any page can charge a fee, might get over this problem. It does still have the grey cloud over it: will users want to constantly be making decisions about what they’re looking at? If nothing else, it might detract from the experience. That’s why the industry might evolve more into a Spotify-style “all you can eat” model. The tablet manufacturer (e.g. Apple) charges users $10/month for “premium web content”; perhaps it’s included in the purchase, depending on how the plan works regarding 3G payments. Of the $10, it keeps $3 for itself and divvies up the remaining $7 equally to the owners of all pages the user visited that month. Users might see a small star icon somewhere while viewing premium content, just so they know they’re getting their money’s worth. 10 bucks a month to see content in premium form on a device you love? Even if the raw content is freely available without the payment, I could see this model working.

Events Last Week: Web Fonts, Social Design Patterns, BT Dev Day, Real-Time Javascript

Last week saw a confluence of excellent events. In the same week as a house move, it proved to be a week of much learning and little sleep. I’d hoped to do a better write-up, it never happened, a combination of being too busy and new MAC BATTERIES SUCK, meaning the lappy couldn’t last through the whole session. But fortunately, I have some links to point to. Here’s a quick summary anyway, along with the linkage.

Web Fonts at London Web Standards

@otrops captured the live notes in glorious detail, as did Rob Crowther.

Ben is ideally placed to cover the brave new world of web fonts, being a web maker who studied fonts at uni. He walked us through the evolution of font hacks on the web: image with alt tag; CSS background image with text pushed off the page; rendering with Flash (SiFR); rendering with Canvas or SVG (Cufon, TypeFace.js), using JSON-based font spec data. It all leads up to the holy grail: @font-face.

Great, so we have @font-face, but issues remain: * The foundries – Mark Pilgrim, in no uncertain terms, complains the font vendors are stuck in the dark ages of the printing press, in their resistance to support @font-face. This seems to be changing with WOFF, a web-only format that seems to placate the foundries, who worry their fonts will be stolen. It seems more like a symbolic gesture, since the data could still be converted and in any event the print fonts could still be appropriated, but the foundries are feeling more reassured and making signs they will go along with it. * Performance issue – Bandwidth issues and Paul Irish’s “flash of unstyled text”, where the user notices the font change once the fancy @font-face font has been downloaded. * Compatibility – IE has long supported font-face, but with EOT format fonts, and that remains the case. You therefore need both types of fonts, and licenses will generally not give you both.

Social Design Patterns

I was, needless to say, psyched about this. Yahoo! has been the closest thing to a realisation of the inspiring design pattern vision of the mid-late ’90s. Patterns on the web, for both its own employees and the wider community to learn from and evolve. These are social design patterns mined by Christian Crumlish (@mediajunkie), in many respect the closest thing software has to an analogy of building architecture, where design patterns originally came from.

There are 96 patterns in all and I’m looking forward to poring through them. In these patterns are hundreds of people-years’ experience of observing real-world social systems. In my own pattern work, I’ve found it necessary to articulate the overarching design principles behind the patterns. Pattern languages should be opinionated, so it’s a good thing to make explicit your criteria for filtering design features. Christian has followed this model too, and identified 5 overarching principles:

  • Paving the cowpaths. Facilitating the patterns that are already happening, rather than imposing your own invented process. Also means evolving with your users, ev dogster started as photo sharing but evolved to social network.
  • Talk like a person.
  • Play well with others. Open standards, mashups, etc. “if you love something, set if free”
  • Learn from games.
  • game UI concepts
  • designing the rules, but ultimately letting the people who come into the space finish the experience themselves.*
  • Respect the ethical dimension.

See the wiki or the book for more details.

BT Developer Day

This was an internal conference for BTers in London covering a range of general tech trends, and also being a chance to get together and talk shop. The agenda included talks on Scala, Rails, Kanban, iPhone development, and even a lightning talk from @psd on the horrors and delights of APL.

I gave a talk on Embracing the Web, emphasising open standards and the supreme primacy of Konami Cornification.

Real-Time Javascript

At the Javascript meetup, a great talk on NodeJS and WebSockets. NodeJS is coming on thick and fast, and Makoto Inoue showed how the technology plays nicely with WebSockets. WebSockets are all about Comet-style interaction, so expect to see a lot more of this combo in the next couple years.

Luis Ciprian, visiting from Brazil, gave us an overview of XMPP and talked us through a real-time web app – a basketball score and conversation tracker – using XMPP.


Web Tablets: The Tipping Point is Nigh

It’s been said that the world hasn’t been this excited about a tablet since Moses came down the mountain. January 27, 2010, is the day Apple is slated to finally put us out of our misery and tell us what it’s all about. But imagine Steve Job moseys onto the stage, launches a forceful history of Apple’s portable record, and then announces Apple’s launching some new ipod speakers. (It happened a few years ago.) No “one more thing”. No tablet. Not even an iPhone OS 4.0.

Even if this happened (it won’t), Apple will have added huge value by sparking a conversation about the future of computing. While some say all the speculation is a waste of time, in this case, I’ve actually found some of the discourse rather fascinating. In particular, Gizmodo’s invocation of Jef Raskin and the “information appliance” dream, and John Gruber’s analysis.

I think Gruber nails it. Steve Jobs, in what many consider will be his final act at Apple, is attempting no less than the next generation of computing UI. Many people are already finding they can get by with just their iPhone for many tasks. Myself, I actually prefer to read blogs on iPhone NetNewsWire and Instapaper on iPhone Instapaper. I can read these away from the distraction of the big machine, whether at home, commuting, or in a shopping line. I’ve been trying to read stuff on mobile devices since the Palm Pilot, and now it’s truly practical. If people are finding their phone does some things better than the computer, imagine what will happen when you have a big touch-screen, let alone any secret-sauce innovations like tactile feedback or live docking into desktop equipment. I think we will find it’s more than adequate for many casual users and a valued extra device for power users.

But this is about much more than Apple. I think we can take it for granted that the medium-term future will be all about touch-screen tablets. We’ll struggle our way through questions about how to stand them up and challenges like their never-satisfying battery life. And what happens when they fall on the floor? Oh, and there will be patent wars galore. But the category will grow fast, as many people start to reap the benefits of a double whammy: better interaction, more convenient form factor.

The really interesting question is how will the UI on these tablets work? The Gizmodo and Daring Fireball articles point in the right direction – it will be more like the new “super phone” mobile generation and less like the traditional PC. Lots of sandboxing, lots of highly-customised idiosyncratic interfaces (but with common idioms), and lots of abstraction (==liberation) from the file system, lots of app stores and repositories.

Now one model for all this is iPhoneOS, the custom-built operating system Apple put together or its own phone. Is there another model?

Of course. The web.

And we can do it today. Apple won’t, others will. We have the makings of an operating system that does all that. Lots of sandboxing? Yep, the whole security model of the web assumes domains don’t trust each other, unlike traditional desktop applications. Lots of customised interfaces? Yep, with Canvas and CSS3 and SVG and WebGL and audio and video and screamingly-fast browsers and a million brilliant libraries and toolkits, yes. Lots of abstraction? Yep, the web never did like file systems, and with offline storage, it doesn’t have to. App stores? Yep, a simple system of URIs and standard HTTP security techniques can do it easily.

Most developers would rather code in technology they already know, that’s open, and has a diverse community contributing a wealth of “how-to” knowledge.

It’s all happening now. Google has ChromeOS. Palm has WebOS. Nokia and others have the W3C web widget standard. Stick these things on tablets, and a whole new generation of UI will flourish.

Over the Break

Quick mention of projects and writings outside this blog:

  • jQuery iFrame plugin – Stepped up work on this, as it was buggy and not very jQuery-plugin-like. Whacked it in GitHub along with test cases. Not all are passing on the 3058 day old browser, yet. This was a good opportunity to play around with asynchronous testing in QUnit and I was pleasantly surprised to find there’s good support for it – use stop() to suspend the test case (conceptually) and start() to continue it. QUnit Asynchronous tests.
  • Scrumptious reboot – Following Osmosoft’s decision to deploy everything inside a multi-user TiddlyWiki platform, Scrumptious has to be migrated to work inside of a TiddlyWiki. The final, pre-TiddlyWiki, Trails player you can see online. I’ve since begun work on an overlay plugin, which is a Claytons TiddlyWiki: the TiddlyWiki you’re having when you’re not having a TiddlyWiki; there’s a TiddlyWiki underneath for power-user functionality and a pretty generic UI on top of it. You can flip back and forth between a TiddlyWiki and a special overlay UI, which has full access to the TiddlyWiki state. It works by hiding all TiddlyWiki elements and pushing “style” elements to a DocumentFragment, so the operation can subsequently be reversed when flipping back. The first proof-of-concept is here (source in the TW repo). I’m psyched about this general approach for rapidly building web apps in a multi-user environment. TiddlyWeb provides a RESTful, permissioned, set of web services; and the UI can then be as flexible as you like. Ideally, each recipe/room would be in its own subdomain to help prevent XSS concerns.
  • Mahemoff.com reboot – Okay, it still needs some love, but my homepage is at least up-to-date now.
  • Server-Side Javascript article – Published Server-Side Javascript: Back With a Vengeance. Sums it all up really. I decided to submit it to ReadWriteWeb, rather than here or Ajaxian, because I figure i’s a good thing to make the wider audience aware of trends like this. Otherwise, it’s preaching to the converted to some extent.
  • End of Days for “View Source” – An editorial musing about the end of days for View Source. Turns out there’s going to be a SXSW panel on View Source and Alex Russell, who’s participating, has Save View Source effort.
  • It’s snowing and freezing in London, hence this Snowman mashup building on @webreflection’s efforts.