Alternative Online Payments: The Dream That Refuses to Die


[Editor’s note: As a New Year’s exercise, we asked a select group of Xconomists to answer this question: “What’s the craziest idea out there that just might succeed?” ]

After nearly twenty years of failed attempts, I’m still a believer in the potential transformative power of the “crazy idea” of alternative Internet payment systems, particularly micropayment engines and alternate currencies.

Payment systems are simply mechanisms to streamline and calibrate the exchange of value. It’s easier to assess the relative worth of cloth from India and tobacco from America if you can translate both into standardized European coinage. Modern payment systems also provide simplicity and security through the use of trusted third-party settlement agents such as banks and credit card associations. But none of these mechanisms are built into our DNA, and there’s no reason to think that today’s systems are the final word.

In fact, the Internet brings with it the potential for so many innovative payment mechanisms as to threaten chaos. This chaotic prospect, combined with the inherent conservatism of payment system users and the understandable desire of payment providers to protect their turf, has so far doomed nearly every new payment system enabled by the Internet. The few exceptions—most notably PayPal—have survived in large part through a strong alliance with the existing players in credit cards and banking. PayPal is (like First Virtual before it) largely a security-conscious overlay on the existing credit card and banking systems.

That kind of limited innovation is more than enough for the powers that be—the large financial players who are more interested in maintaining their near-monopolies than in enabling new kinds of economic activity. Not surprisingly, however, the interests of the banks and card associations are not necessarily in sync with those of the rest of us.

From Digicash to Cybercash to BitCoin, there have been plenty of demonstrations of the technical feasability of alternative Internet payment mechanisms. And in the physical world, alternative currencies such as Ithaca Hours have hinted at the potential for a community to revitalize itself by taking control of its own money supply. In times of economic hardship like today, the poor and unemployed have traditionally reverted to barter to exchange goods in the absence of currency, but those transactions have been limited by geography and personal circles of trust. With Internet-based alternative currencies, however, … Next Page »

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Nathaniel Borenstein is chief scientist at e-mail management firm Mimecast. Based in Michigan, he is the co-creator of the MIME e-mail standard and previously co-founded First Virtual Holdings and NetPOS. Follow @drmime

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