Among the many attempts to create a payments system for the Internet is one that almost meets the old definition of wampum.
This Internet currency, Beenz, can be collected on-line and spent at various merchant sites on the World Wide Web. In contrast to some other, less than successful versions of virtual currency, Beenz have no cash value and are closer to the concept of frequent-flier rewards -- though the kidney-bean logo conjures up notions of bean-counting.
"Our vision is to create the global Web currency," said Philip Letts, the 33-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of Beenz.com, the New York company that put its product on the market five months ago. "Our business is to distribute the Beenz. We are the central bank of Beenz."
The mission and the marketing gimmick differentiate Beenz from the likes of Cybercash Inc.'s cybercoin and Digicash Inc.'s E-cash, which were designed as true cash equivalents, complete with commercial bank issuance and backing. But those ideas did not take hold.
Cybercash focused instead on other kinds of merchant-transaction processing, and Digicash fell into bankruptcy protection last year, as consumers making purchases on the World Wide Web overwhelmingly stuck with their familiar credit cards.
That has not stopped entrepreneurs and inventors from proposing new schemes and finding financial backing to launch them. Beenz seems to draw inspiration both from the more literal virtual cash idea and from the new world of Internet marketing.
Beenz are awarded to people who fill out on-line surveys, visit Web sites, or buy merchandise in conventional ways.
A merchant who wants to draw traffic to his site would agree to buy Beenz from Beenz.com for a penny apiece and would put up a banner advertising the availability of Beenz.
The merchant also decides what the consumer must do to earn Beenz -- divulge personal information, join a club, buy something, or simply click on the site.
Meanwhile, a consumer opens a free account at Beenz.com, where he can also view a list of the 200 merchants that give away Beenz. Then he could go to a site where, for example, he could earn 10 Beenz for filling out a survey or 50 Beenz for buying a small item.
Some, but not all, of the merchants giving out Beenz also accept them as payment. Two -- BeenzQueen.com and GotBeenz.com -- take payment exclusively in Beenz.
BeenzQueen.com, for example, sells a $15 music compact disc for 6,000 Beenz, or gift certificates denominated in Beenz.
After a consumer redeems Beenz for merchandise, Beenz.com pays the merchant half a cent for each Beenz involved in the purchase.
Mr. Letts of Beenz.com said 70,000 people have Beenz accounts and about 20 merchants are planning to open Beenz-only sites. He said merchants have bought $100,000 worth of Beenz and view his service as a way to attract consumer traffic.
Carol Bowlin, co-founder of Kingsland, Tex.-based BeenzQueen, is an Internet entrepreneur who runs several chat rooms in addition to the Beenz site. "We didn't know how Beenz would pan out," she said, but it has "become a culture." Ms. Bowlin declined to say how much she has spent on Beenz, but she said she is making a profit.
Beenz.com is part of a growing movement to influence consumers' behavior on the Internet by offering incentives to buy things.
Scores of companies are paying consumers to read advertisements on the Web, for example.
Cybergold, a four-year-old company in Berkeley, Calif., was the first to try out this concept, according to Vernon Keenan, an Internet analyst with Keenan Vision Inc. of San Francisco. Cybergold, which offers cash credits to consumers who visit certain Web sites and make purchases there, "is the originator of paying you for attention," Mr. Keenan said. The company, which has a strategic partnership with Visa, says it has 2.5 million members.
Cybergold also operates in the micropayments field, marketing its services to companies selling small-ticket items. Its marketing materials say merchants can "avoid the standard fee-ridden credit card system and sell items that previously were not cost-effective to offer."
Beenz.com, which says it has 60 employees, also has its eye on credit card payments.
Mr. Letts said the company is "working on" letting consumers pay for items with credit cards, and then pay the card bills in Beenz. "I'm absolutely sure you will find credit cards taking Beenz,'' Mr. Letts said.
Mr. Letts also promises that Beenz.com will soon disclose the names of some of its investors; identify a portal company with which it is partnering; and add Beenz-eating merchants to its site. He said the company maintains an office in the United Kingdom and plans in September to open others in Tokyo and Sydney.
Beenz.com has its work cut out for it. "I didn't take them that seriously when I first saw them," said Kenneth J. Kerr, an analyst at GartnerGroup in Durham, N.C.
"I would say they have a chance to succeed," he said, because it has had some early successes. From a merchant's perspective, "it is a low-cost way to attract Web traffic," and Beenz.com is "playing in a space by themselves."
Only one other company appears to come close to what Beenz.com is doing -- a Wilmington, Del., outfit called Gold and Silver Reserve Inc.
It is selling on-line accounts at its Web site, e-gold.com, that it says are backed by actual pieces of gold, silver, and platinum. The company has existed since 1996 and has 800 people with e-gold accounts, holding about $1.5 million of value, said e-gold spokesman Jim Ray.
"It's hard to convince people that (e-gold) is not a scam," Mr. Ray said.
Many e-gold users and merchants describe themselves as libertarians, who support the idea of a gold standard. One downside is that the value of gold is at a 20-year low.
The primary reason people have e-gold accounts, Mr. Ray said, is that "it's more fun to use than credit cards."
Beenz.com is also banking on its ability to entertain. Mr. Kerr, similarly, said collecting Beenz is "fun."
Beenz.com spokesman Glenn Jasper said next month a merchant will be offering a Caribbean vacation villa for about 200,000 Beenz. He said it would probably take two months of surfing the Net every day on sites that offer Beenz to earn enough to get the prize.