Revisit: holding my data hostage

I wrote an article 8 years ago after a frustrating time with some backup software: Holding my Data Hostage.

The idea at the time was that subscriptions ('software as a service') left user data at the whim of service providers, that they could impose arbitrary fees for access to your data. I had in mind a subscription version of Microsoft Office, and annual payments for access. In contrast, I liked the idea that I could "buy" a perpetual license to access my data, which is the model desktop software followed at the time. With some work, you could more or less move your software from PC to PC, and your data with it.

But another thing has happened in the interim. PCs are cheaper. The Mac, iPhone, and web services are much more popular. And the problem is related but different. The industry's challenge has been clear for 5 years or more: make it easy to move user data across devices, laptops, desktops, smartphones, etc. And I believe the desktop software industry, by not adapting at all, puts itself at considerable risk. (Think "record industry" and "selling CDs".)

Since 2001, software "activation" has become prevalent on the desktop, with Microsoft especially (and Adobe to a lesser extent) making it punishingly hard to move your data and licenses between PCs. (Think "DRM" and "MP3s".) I neglected to get an OEM Office with my new laptop, and have since found that it can cost up to $400 to get a copy. It's a pain to move Photoshop to a new desktop, because I have to somehow boot the old one to unauthorize it, even though the hard drive doesn't work anymore.

In the era of $299 netbooks, $400 is quite a tax for simple access to your data. But my laptop is missing a $400 copy of Office, because it doesn't make sense to buy it for a computer I use 10% of the time.

Currently Google Docs (and Zoho, etc.) provide enough functionality that the basic uses are available online (for free, rather than for $400), and for more serious work, I can use my "main" desktop. But what a sorry state of things!

It's clear that software delivery today is broken. I can't get the experience I want, everywhere, because I want to spend about the same amount of money I used to on Microsoft's products, not 3x as much. I think they should be driving their revenue growth by making my life more convenient, not less.

And I think it's actually fair to say that Microsoft's monopoly in Windows and Office is making a smooth transition to the "right model" more difficult than it should be.

Microsoft won't upgrade your XP system to Windows 7. Settings and third-party apps must be re-installed. (It usually takes me a month to do this.) 

Apple will do a great job upgrading your Mac, in an hour. I just upgraded Tiger to Leopard, and everything works. But Microsoft makes a huge amount of money from new computer purchases, so it's incredibly hard for me to understand why they make upgrading so hard. If I could replace my PC every 18 months instead of every three years, I probably would.

My wife has a 3-year-old PC, and she can't even upgrade the parts, because her XP license considers a new motherboard an invalidation of the license. She won't lose her apps and settings if she keeps the old desktop, so she does.

Here are my solutions (we'll call this the "How to put the Cloud on the Desktop"):
  1. Extend OEM licenses (purchased with a PC) to "guest" licenses on other PCs. Automatically. Make a 3-year time limit (after which you can only use the original PC without paying more).
  2. Replace activation with authentication. iTunes just works better than Windows activation tied to a specific 3-year-old motherboard. 
  3. Make licenses transferrable and renewable for a small fee when you sell a PC. ($10 gets you a wiped PC, with secure delete of your old data.)
  4. Deliver software through the cloud, automatically, when you login.
  5. Make upgrades from PC to PC (with legacy settings preserved) easy.
  6. Make data sync to the cloud and other PCs.
  7. Make settings sync to the cloud and other PCs.
The demands of data movement and a focus on user data as the most valuable commodity will actually drive this change, and it seems like it's going to happen fast. But the analogy with the record industry is clear. 

The cloud is going to be disruptive to the desktop software industry, and mostly for the wrong reasons. The software is still valuable, but the delivery must change. Failure to adapt to it could displace some major players, if they do not make accommodations to making peoples' lives easier, instead of burying their heads in the status quo.

 I do hope it's not another 8 years.

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