What we have today is an illusion. We're greeted by name on custom Web sites, but these sites don't recognize individuals; they recognize Web browsers. That's why, even though I may see "Welcome, Greg!" at the top of the page, I'm also presented with "If you're not Greg, click here."
At first glance, that may not seem like such a big deal, but it may well represent the defining issue of online commerce.
The next phase of the Net will go well beyond custom portals to something far more sophisticated and infinitely more helpful. Imagine a calendar service interacting with a map service so that your car can give you directions to your next appointment without being asked; it could even interact with a traffic service to help you avoid delays due to road construction or stalled vehicles.
To make this vision of "smart" Web services a reality, however, service providers need an efficient way to identify people and bill them small amounts.
Consider Internet searches, which are free but notoriously off the mark. Would you be willing to pay a fee for a higher quality of search? Perhaps. But how much? Specialists routinely pay hundreds of dollars a month for access to specialized databases, but a harried consumer might only be willing to pay 25 cents a search for more accurate results on "early music of Appalachia" or "origins of bone china."
Or consider music downloads: How much would you pay for a single song or a single listening? Right now, there's no universally accepted online equivalent to pocket change--what you use when you want to buy a newspaper or a hundred other small items that add up to big business. With a fine-grained billing system, such micro-payments could open up whole new markets online.
If we go back to my example of the calendar, map and traffic services all working together, then it's easy to see that each needs to be compensated, and people will likely want a choice between a flat monthly rate or a small per-use fee. That's pretty much the way the telecommunications industry works today.
Carriers across the country--indeed, around the world--seamlessly transfer callers between their various networks and, through peering agreements, share profits equitably. Given the volume of calls, both wired and wireless (which adds roaming to the mix), this can be an exceedingly complex undertaking, but the carriers have it down to a system--a veritable service grid in which consumers and service providers all benefit.
No comparable billing system exists on the Net. No standard way to simply connect and be billed for services the way cell phone users are automatically billed for roaming or long-distance service. No peering and settlement systems to ensure that each service provider collects its due.
Until we get this right, the next wave of Internet business will be severely handicapped, held back by inconvenience, incompatibility and mistrust. It's only natural, I suppose, that the leading Internet service providers, with their millions of paying subscribers, were among the first to see the problem and try to address it.
However, while their intentions may be good--making it easy for subscribers to purchase goods and services without having to continually re-enter credit information--they have no incentive to create a neutral, open billing system that treats all merchants fairly.
Quite the opposite.
The natural tendency will be for Internet service providers to give preferential treatment to their own services and those of their business partners. What we need is a universal identity system that doesn't play favorites. Such a system could borrow from the trusted models established by telecommunications companies, credit card systems and governments.
After all, passports for international travel are issued and honored by many different countries, not by a single entity. The same should be true when traveling the World Wide Web.