Sunday, November 13, 2005

Pipe dream: Pay-as-you-go software

Saw a movie yesterday with Whoopie Goldberg, where she played a Wall Street analyst who had to invent a white, male partner for clients to take her seriously. This character then obviously took on a life of its own, eventually even getting a subpoena from the SEC. Which had me wondering how something like that could ever happen; I'm used to living in Small Country, where everyone has an identity code and there is a comprehensive database of the population.

Just one more of those things which Americans (and apparently Brits) wouldn't think of as consistent with a free, democratic state. In truth though, it works wonders. We're the first country to successfully implement online voting, and that couldn't happen without digital signatures. Using your ID card and a PIN number, you can securely identify yourself online.

Which leads to an interesting idea I had upon hearing all the recent ranting and raving about the Sony rootkit. If every person on the planet was identifiable online (something that IPv6 intends to do anyway, as far as I understand), the entire software distribution model could be changed.

Imagine a world where the code itself is free. The Open Source dream has become a reality. Access control has reached a point where it no longer makes sense to limit the amount of copies - thus exploiting the natural killer feature of digital technology, the ability to reproduce content without loss of quality. You can download any software you want, in fact most of what you need probably comes preinstalled on your computer. The business model is pay-as-you-go. Because the Internet knows who you are, you can pay the authors for using it, not for having it on your machine. Go to an Internet cafe, and have full access to Photoshop Professional, if you've paid for it. Couple this with the server-based functionality, and IT gets taken to a whole new level.

This isn't, strictly speaking, a new idea, but pay-as-you-go isn't currently useful for software, simply because micropayments are too obtrusive. But think of the interface used by You charge your account with a certain amount of cash, in $10 increments, and then download music at your leisure; the account is debited depending on how much of the website's bandwidth you're using. (And because you pay for bandwidth, they get to claim that they're a broadcaster, not a retailer. As such they only have to pay a nominal fee to the relevant copyright protection agency, which is why you can download the new Rasmus album for two dollars.

Alternatively, think how good this would be for independent developers. Specialized tools are hugely expensive, and even I, with my everything-on-the-Internet-should-be-free mindset, concede that for this purpose you need to pay the authors. Yet a startup, or a single coder working on his better mousetrap on the weekends, cannot possibly afford all the tools that would make their life so much easier. Even if you can afford the license, how can you tell that it's what you really need?

But what if you only needed a license for commercial use? What if you could download and use every framework, every environment, every bell and whistle without limitation, until you sell your first copy? If you know you'll make money off of it, then you can shell out full retail for Adobe's finest.

Not that this will ever happen. But hey - a guy can dream!

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