Why Google’s One Pass Could Be a Ticket to Nowhere

Google has gotten a lot of attention for the launch of One Pass, the all-in-one subscription plan for publishers that the search giant revealed earlier today — primarily because it made for a nice counterpoint to Apple’s new in-app subscription system, which launched on Tuesday. While Apple’s offering is closed and takes a big chunk of the revenue from publishers, Google’s (s goog) takes a much smaller cut — and because it’s based on the web and not on controlling access to a walled garden, Google’s system is much more open. That said, however, it’s not at all clear that publishers will get anywhere by signing up for it, open or not.

The main benefits of Google’s plan are fairly obvious: It doesn’t force publishers to provide the company with preferential access to their customers, the way Apple does by requiring in-app purchasing for all subscription services, and Google is taking only 10 percent of the revenue any publishers bring in via its payment system, while Apple takes 30 percent of all subscription fees. On top of that, as MG Siegler notes, the One Pass system provides publishers with access to information about those who sign up — names, email addresses, zip codes and so on — which is crucial data that content companies use to market their services to advertisers. Apple turns this option off by default, and users have to opt in.

That’s the good news. The bad news? Google’s One Pass is pretty much just a warmed-over content paywall. All it does is collect the money for publishers who want to put up a toll-booth around their content. In fact, the thing it resembles the most — as Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab notes — is the Journalism Online Press+ system that entrepreneur Steven Brill and former Wall Street Journal (s nws) executive Gordon Crovitz have been peddling to newspapers and magazines for the past year or more, without much success.

Like that system, Google’s service is essentially designed to handle the payment processing for multiple subscription sites, so users can theoretically sign up for dozens without worrying about being nickel-and-dimed by each one. There’s just one problem: There’s no sign that users have any interest in doing this — or at least, not in large enough numbers to make it work for anyone other than perhaps The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Those who have put up new paywalls, including The Times of London, have seen the vast majority of their readers disappear into the wind.

One of the reasons users of Apple products like the iPhone and the iPad (s aapl) seem a lot more willing to pay for things like apps is because the experience is so much better and paying is so easy. Despite that, magazine and newspaper publishers have have had little success so far in getting people to pay for their apps. Why would it be any easier with Google’s One Pass? If anything, it’s likely to be even harder, because it’s based on the open web — and users are likely to notice that free content is all around them, while iPhone and iPad apps do a fairly good job of disguising that fact.

So congratulations to Google for making some hay with its launch, but any publisher who sees One Pass as some kind of golden ticket is dreaming in Technicolor.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user David Kozlowski