August 2, 2007

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Prescription for subscription
Why buy when you can rent?
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

You don’t own your software.

You might think you bought that awesome game or photo editing application, but if you actually read the end user license agreement (EULA) that comes up in a tiny box when you install software, you’ll find you’re really just buying permission to use it.

If buying upgrades every year wasn’t annoying enough, software vendors have been trying to make software more of a subscription service than a buy-once proposition. For the consumer, this has pluses and minuses. Paying a flat fee every month entitles you to constant updates and patches. On the other hand, you can never find an old copy of a program CD lying around and just use it — if you’re not paying every month, it won’t work.

Microsoft has been making inroads into subscription computing for not just individual programs, but entire PCs. Using hardware components and software that allow metering of use and remote administration. The company likens it to the mobile phone model, in which a service provider can deactivate a device if a customer is behind on payments. After a couple years, you can trade up to a new model.

So far, computer subscriptions have only been successful outside the United States. We are, after all, an “ownership society,” as our president has said. Microsoft’s efforts have seen the most promise in quickly developing countries like Brazil and Mexico. Eventually, though, they’d like to see it here.

In a weird way, you can get a preview of the subscription model from a company called Zonbu. It sells a compact PC for $99 when you commit to two years of their subscription service. It’s loaded with a Linux-based operating system and scads of open source software. It’s all on 4GB of local flash storage, making the box very energy efficient and quiet.

Rather than charging you a monthly fee for applications, Zonbu wants to charge you for storage. $12.95 a month gets you 25GB of online capacity, automatic backup of your data and the latest updates of the operating system and software. You can also access your data from any other PC via the Web. So yeah, you can buy a much larger external hard drive for pretty cheap, but you wouldn’t get the access-anywhere feature that way.

That you can get for free.

Seriously, there are so many services offering no-cost gigabytes on the Internet that you’d be a fool to sign up for something like Zonbu just for the storage. From Box.net’s 1GB to Xdrive.com’s 5GB to MediaMax.com’s 25GB, the space is there for the taking. Various software utilities offer automatic backup or integration with Windows Explorer folder browsing, so you can access your online storage without opening up browsers. If you find yourself needing more space or features, most of these services offer upgrades for a small monthly fee.

Is there a place for subscription computing? Sure. If you trust a company and just want to have the latest software always available with no effort or worry, then it might be worth your money. If you prefer to have more control over your own PC, it’s probably not for you.