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The tell-tale heart

Net content’s past haunts our future. Net Ventures hed: The tell-tale heart dek: Net content’s past haunts our future. dek: nothing is free, especially on the Web. by Sean M. Dugan

All signs point to the imminent return of 1980s. It’s the first law of nature that all hideous trends you thought you’d covered with dirt in a shallow grave will come back to haunt you–call it the tell-tale heart syndrome. So now that bell bottoms, hip huggers, and heroin chic have enjoyed their renaissance, I fully expect to see the return of big shouldered jackets, skinny ties, and Topsiders. I suspect we’ll also see the return of a few business ideas from the ’80s-including the return of the paid-content syndicate model.

If the pogo-stick gyrations of dot-com stocks teach us anything, it’s that we should all start getting used to the idea that the mostly free Internet was a fluke. Remember what makes the world go round? It applies to the Web as well. For our favorite content, we’re all going to have to pony up some money. The inevitable question after “Will it happen?” is “How will it happen?”

While there are innumerable fashions from the ’80s I’d prefer left in their grave to molder-neon “Miami Vice” suits leap immediately to mind-there are a few things from the Reagan decade worth salvaging. I was pretty fond of The Go-Go’s. I have no personal objection to the Madonna’s underwear-outside-your-clothing style. And then there’s the idea of a paid content syndicate.

Back in the old days, if you wanted digital content, you paid for it. Now, it’s a novel concept but it’s creeping inexorably back into our collective Net consciousness.

Before the Internet was the technology du jour, AOL, CompuServe and their brethren charged you for accessing their network. Essentially, you paid for them to operate as your ISP, as well as paying for the content. Typically, you paid a flat fee for simple access, and then a usage fee for premium content.

The Web spelled the end of that business model, but this was when everyone thought we could pay for million-dollar Web sites with targeted advertising, transaction fees, and magic pixel dust. Back to the business-model drawing boards.

There are two big problems in charging for content. Digital content is abstract bytes–there’s nothing tangible. Psychologically, people have trouble paying for intangible things. We want the permanence of something you can lay your hands on. Hence the reason so many largely intangible goods–music, software or video games –are as much about the packaging as the content. The second big problem is that people don’t want to go through the hassle to subscribe. Don’t you hate having to fill out one of those registration forms, even when you don’t have to pay? Paying for content doesn’t work well because the mechanisms for paying are cumbersome and immature.

I think we’ll soon see a time when you subscribe to a syndicate of Internet content. In essence, I’m talking about the idea of several sites operating together to make their content available. On their own, most content sites have a tough time scraping up subscribers–those people willing to go to the effort to sign up in the first place, let alone fork over the dough. But what if you were subscribing to all of them electronically in one fell swoop? A pan-site subscription service. Imagine subscribing to the New York Times,, Salon, and Consumer Reports in a single service. That might be something worth paying–and filling out forms–to get.

In such a scenario, the question arises: Who would you pay your subscription fee to? The logical choice seems to be that users pay a monthly fee to their ISPs, the charge being tacked on to the regular bill.

And yes, this is pretty close to how AOL used to work. What goes around comes around.

It gets interesting when you realize there’s no reason you can’t choose the content-based Web sites you subscribe to. This is the Web–maybe the playing field isn’t perfectly level for everyone, but at least we’re all playing the same game. I imagine a service for content providers-perhaps driven by a savvy software behemoth and some potent technology like XML–where the content sites like newspapers, magazines and the like sign up and establish a pricing model, and then the syndication network sends willing readers their way. Content sites get paying subscribers while readers support their favorite sources with a minimum of hassle.

Now, what is Microsoft’s recent HailStorm push but Bill Gates’ grand attempt to bridge the gap between Internet content and your wallet?

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