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The Coin-Op Web?

In the 1990s, e-payment startups like DigiCash, Flooz, and Beenz crashed because dot-com companies didn’t think they needed the technology to make money, and because consumers expected Web content to be free. Times have changed, but there are still plenty of skeptics who doubt micropayments will catch on broadly, considering that MP3 listeners and Web-comics fans are the technology’s main U.S. consumers so far. Even those who have made their fortunes in the online-payments world acknowledge that it’s an uphill battle. “It’s quite possible they could fail miserably in this economic climate,” says Max Levchin, cofounder and former chief technology officer of PayPal (see sidebar “The PayPal Precedent).

But both the supply of digital content and consumers’ willingness to pay for it are increasing, and the micropayment companies’ strategy of signing up Web merchants, one at a time, has promise. “There will be small companies who figure out how to play this chicken-and-egg game,” says Andrew Whinston, director of the Center for Research in Electronic Commerce at the University of Texas at Austin. “The key is to become successful before big companies like Microsoft get into it.”

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