BT Retail is to begin trialling a system for making small payments online that could be attractive to thousands of Web sites, at a time when Internet companies are pinching pennies. The system, which has already proven a success in Germany, could also make it easier for users to make small, one-off purchases, such as archived print articles or other premium content.
Many sites, such as The New York Times, charge a fee to access archived articles, but users currently must create an account with their credit card every time they access a new site with paid content. BT's "click & buy" service centralises the process, letting users sign up once, and then use their payment information on any site participating int he scheme.
BT has signed up about 15 sites for the pilot, beginning this month, including Sportinglife.com and Handbag.com. The software was licensed from Germany's Firstgate Internet, which has already signed up 1,000 content providers and 600,000 end users.
"There are some pretty impressive revenues coming in through this method. It's growing very quickly," said Ian Price, chief executive of BT Retail division BT Micropayments.
Price said that while "click & buy" doesn't replace conventional e-commerce systems used on sites such as Amazon.co.uk, it fills a niche currently occupied by a number of often inconvenient payments systems. Some sites, for example, require users to sign up for a monthly subscription in order to access a single article, leading users to create a new account and then immediately cancel it. Price said that BT's research showed that in some cases, users were five or six times more willing to make a one-off payment than to buy a subscription.
Other payment schemes require users to pay a minimum amount into a virtual "wallet", but this method, too, has its problems, Price argued. "Prepay has its place. With a prepay mobile phone, you're sure that you will use the value you've put into it. But if you prepay for micropayments, you're not convinced you'll use it," he said.
BT may have to overcome users' security fears for the scheme to work. While Price argues that BT has a good record on security, holding the bank details of six million customers who are on direct debit plans, Internet users may recall a few disturbing incidents: In 2000, the company accidentally published the names and personal details of several thousand prospective broadband customers. And this spring, BT inadvertently exposed many businesses to possible Internet attacks when it published internal corporate dial-up numbers.
"BT has got a very significant security operation, which we have used to ensure that everything is as secure as it can possibly be," Price said. He said that customers would prefer signing up once to getting out their credit cards every time they used a new Web site.
Price also noted that, unlike Firstgate, BT's offering will not be open to one of the largest and most lucrative markets for one-off micropayments, namely adult content sites.