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Could Crypto Solve The World Wide Web's Micropayment Problem?

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The year is 1989 and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee is trying to develop a method to share information with physicists anywhere in the world. Tim could not have known at the time, that this simple problem would give birth to one of the greatest technological breakthroughs in history.

Creating The Infrastructure Of The World Wide Web

In the 1990s, Mr. Berners-Lee and his team at CERN were busy creating the infrastructure for the World Wide Web. Part of this was creating a list of error codes. Some of these codes will be very familiar to you as a regular internet user. For example, the 404 ‘Not Found’ error code, which pops up when you click on a broken link or the 400 ‘Bad Request’ code, found when a website's server is down.


However, there is one error code that you have probably never seen before and that's the 402 ‘Payment Required’ code. The interesting thing is that the creators of the World Wide Web reserved this 402 code for future use. This shows how Mr. Berners-Lee and his team expected that a fully integrated digital payment solution would be created for the internet in the future. Doesn’t it make sense that a new online digital economy would need to be supported by a fast and easy transfer of value native to the web? The creators of the web seem to have agreed and accepted that the technological limitations of the time had put this vision beyond the reach of pioneers of the 1990s.

30 Years Later

Flash forward to 2019 and there is still no commonly used method of combining digital money with user browsing. That 402 ‘Payment Required’ code is still not in use, except for a few exceptions such as when the Google Developers API exceeds the limits on API calls and when Shopify merchants have not paid their fees.

So how does the World Wide Web look 30 years on from Tim Berners-Lee’s conception? Well, you can make payments and transfer value by creating an account at the merchant's website and handing over your bank card details every time you want to make an online purchase. Needless to say, you will be forced to hand over your personal details whilst you are at it and be consigned to a lifetime of SPAM emails or questionable sales calls from companies you have never heard of. Indeed, simply selling products doesn’t seem to be enough for modern online businesses, who try to squeeze additional value out of users by monetizing their data too. This state of affairs has led to the rise of online data barons and, needless to say, some of these companies are now amongst the largest in the world.

Source: checkout flow

There is little doubt that the digital economy is here and all of you reading this post are participating in it. Yes, it’s possible for people to conduct business online and for users to buy things from online merchants. However, is browsing, buying things online and supporting content creators as seamless and easy as it could be? Is it simple to support a content creator with relative anonymity? We think not. Instead, we are stuck with limited options and are in a never-ending cycle of creating more accounts at different merchants, sharing our financial details with an ever increasing number of people. We have tried to get around the shortcomings of our current system by using tools like SPAM filters and password managers. However, the digital world we have now has significant friction and that’s where a payment system native to the web can add real value.

People Like Convenience & Ease Of Use In The Digital Economy

Think about the last 24 hours; chances are that you came across some online content that gave you a few seconds of joy. We imagine that most people would have no problem donating a few cents to that content creator to support them and let them know they have done a good job. However, how do you do this in an easy way? Now, that's the problem.

Even if the idea of giving a small donation to pat a content creator on the back pops into a readers mind, they quickly realize that it’s going to be a time-consuming thing to make it happen and quite rightly move on with their day. That’s the problem in a nutshell; there is friction with online payments and this example highlights how digital payments are not seamless or native to the web. It should be as easy as clicking a single button.

One-click payments do of course exist. However, they are reserved for the largest online businesses that can afford to deploy them. Think about how popular and easy Amazon's one-click payment option is. The dominance of businesses like Amazon illustrates how customers love the convenience and simplicity. However, this better shopping experience comes at a price.

  1. Smaller businesses struggle to compete with conglomerates who can afford to deploy more convenient payment flows. This means the rich get richer and that’s bad news if you believe that variety, choice, and diversity are essential to preventing dysfunctional systems from emerging.
  2. Companies dominating e-commerce have created vast user databases, with personal details and financial data on each person. The billion dollar question is ‘how safe is this user data and who is it being shared with?’

In a nutshell, the landscape of the World Wide Web has been changing and is becoming increasingly centralized. Yes, users love the convenience that these platforms offer and large businesses seem to understand that if you offer customers convenience today, you can achieve market dominance tomorrow. The sad fact is that monopolies rarely ever work out well for consumers in the long-term. However, the rise and domination of businesses like Amazon just go to show that simple and easy payments are what the people want.

A Lack Of Web-Native Micropayments Leads To More Ads

The vast majority of people are content consumers. However, imagine you are one of the few brave souls that have decided to create online content for a living or a side hustle. The big question is how do you get rewarded for your efforts? Any economist will tell you that people respond to incentives. Sure, there will always be a small handful of people that want to create content on something they are passionate about and are independently wealthy enough to do so unimpeded. However, most mere mortals need to be able to afford things like accommodation and food. Put simply, most content creators continue to produce the content that people love to consume because they are getting rewarded for it.

So, how do most content creators make money? The answer is through ad revenue. Those annoying banners or ad videos are the bread and butter for millions of online content creators. The downside is that ads are annoying and sometimes ruin the user experience. This has kick-started an arms race where users are using ad blockers and content publishers are deploying blockers for ad blockers. It’s frankly a complete mess.


The problem is even greater when you consider the scale at which businesses must operate to make advertising networks profitable. Content creators are generally not business people and don’t have the time to go out there and negotiate ad deals with multiple companies. Even if they were, then the chances are that the content creator doesn’t have enough eyeballs to make a deal viable for the potential advertiser. Time is money after all.

The result of all this is that content producers are dependent on platforms like Facebook, Google, and YouTube to onboard advertising for the entire platform. This creates a situation where content creators get paid whatever these conglomerates offer to pay them. You may think that a YouTuber with a million views has made it and must be zooming around in a Lambo. However, the stark truth is that they are barely making ends meet. Indeed, one million YouTube views are only worth around $2k in ad revenue. For some, that may seem a lot, but you need to remember that less than 0.5% of content producers on the platform reach this view count and Google is pocketing 45% of all ad revenue generated by the content creator too.

Think about it; if half the people in a one million view count total would donate the content creator one cent, that would translate into $5,000 in revenue. It would mean that no content consumer would need to view any ads whatsoever and the content creator would be significantly better off. A micropayment system native to the web really could change everything and result in an even greater increase in content quality.

Innovation Is Being Held Back


Imagine you were walking around your nearest city and suddenly see hundreds of people running around holding their phones up. It’s likely you would stop and ask one of these people what they were doing. You then find out they were participating in an augmented reality scavenger hunt that anyone can enter for $5 and the top prize was $5k. Now, that seems like something fun that a lot of people would be interested in joining. The problem is that you now have to:

  1. Ask what app do you need to download?
  2. Download the app.
  3. Create an account.
  4. Enter your payment details into an app created by a company you had never heard of.

The process has too many hoops and is too time-consuming for most people. Truly frictionless payments native to the web would certainly make this process easier. Imagine if you could buy that scavenger hunt entry ticket with just the click of a button.

Simple and easy to use micropayments could spark a new age of innovation on the web. The friction that currently exists seems to be a bit too much for most users to handle.

Cryptocurrency To The Rescue?


On the Joe Rogan show, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stated that he believed that ‘the internet will have a native currency’, he went on to say that he believed it would be Bitcoin. Now there are many reasons why Bitcoin is probably not the answer. However, that doesn’t mean that components of Bitcoin such as blockchain technology and cryptography couldn’t play a major role in a future solution.

One exceptionally interesting thing to think about is how the internet’s ~3 billion users actually access and interact with the World Wide Web. We bet that you have accessed this article by using a web browser. Yes, there are many web browsers out there like Google Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari and more. So, this probably means that solving the internet’s micropayment issue isn’t as easy as getting Google Chome to implement micropayments. No doubt this would improve things. However, it would still create friction where users had adopted a different web browser and didn’t want to switch.

Maybe the solution to the internet’s micropayment conundrum is to create a browser-based payment system? One that can operate on any web-browser. Now that could potentially be a game changer and solve the problem of online payment friction. Imagine if any internet user, using any web browser could enjoy one-click pay on any webshop that is accessed in-browser. Sounds like it could be a potential solution to the World Wide Web’s micropayment problem right?

The interesting thing is that there is a cryptocurrency project taking a similar approach. The project is called Nimiq and it’s the first browser-based blockchain. Nimiq is creating a crypto payment system on this blockchain, with NIM being the native token that is transacted in this ecosystem. This browser-based approach means that users are actually able to connect to the blockchain without downloading any software whatsoever. That creates a no-installation experience and gives the user that “it just works” feel that most internet users want. Nimiq has also created a frictionless one-click pay process in their Web Shop to showcase the simplicity of paying with NIM. The Nimiq team are also set to shortly release an open sourced version of the checkout flow to enable merchants and web shops from around the world to accept NIM. It will certainly be interesting to see if this innovative solution will catch on and be widely adopted.

However, Nimiq’s focus on simplicity and ease of use certainly gives it a chance and differentiates it from more complex to use cryptocurrencies. After all, traditional companies like Apple have shown that a focus on simplicity can be highly effective when it comes to user adoption. You can even try out the Nimiq browser-based experience for free in just 30 seconds - test it out now. You’ll get some free NIM to mess around with too.

Final Word

Needless to say, any cryptocurrency solution to the World Wide Web’s micropayment problem is a long way off. However, the potential is certainly there for crypto or elements of cryptocurrency technology to play a vital role in solving this issue. Innovation will have dead ends and false dawns. But what's for sure is that any real solution will not be built on legacy technology like card payments.

A solution arising from the cryptocurrency industry seems like a relatively decent bet at present. However, tech can be almost impossible to predict and that’s what makes it so exciting, innovate and disruptive. Maybe a cryptocurrency will be responsible for a 402 ‘Payment Required’ error code flashing up on your screen in the future. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Disclosure: This article was contributed by Tom Alford at Total Crypto. The author holds some NIM in their portfolio and is compensated in a long-term independent consulting capacity by Nimiq. This article must not be construed as investment advice. Always do your own research.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes.

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