Microsoft has recently been heavily promoting their so-called .Net strategy. Among other goals, this strategy aims to shift at least some of Microsoft’s enormous audience to a model in which they rent Web-based software rather than, as in conventional marketing, purchasing a CD and annual upgrades.
The advantages of this strategy for users include the fact that we’d pay for software only when we used it, and that we’d always have the most recent release of the software available, including all the latest bug fixes and security updates. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer has publicly stated that in 10 years, software rental will have largely replaced purchases.
Other aspects of the .Net strategy revolve around Internet-enabling software such as Microsoft Office to work with other Web software, which is also a laudable goal.
But it’s the notion of renting software over the ‘net that interests me most, since Microsoft is among a growing group of vendors interested in earning their dot-com millions by serving as application service providers (ASPs). The problem with ASPs? They make sound economic sense, but ignore the needs of a majority of the community of software users. That’s hardly wise.
Will this approach work? Given Microsoft’s track record, it’s awfully hard to bet against them and those who will follow their lead – but I predict that .Net won’t work nearly as well as Microsoft hopes because the strategy is driven more strongly by economics and a fear of competition from smaller, more nimble ASPs than by customer needs.
The logic behind Microsoft’s ASP approach is that an annual rental or a “per-use” fee guarantees the company more income than with the current model. After all, you can bet that Microsoft isn’t adopting this approach to lose money. But even if rental fees seem to cost average users less than annual upgrades, many of us won’t see these savings because we don’t upgrade our software annually. The reluctance to upgrade stems from a very real fear of encountering new bugs once we’ve finally learned to live with the current batch, and a prudent “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy.
So, which other needs does .Net ignore?
First, many of us will refuse to embrace a solution that forces us to remain connected to the Web at all times to run Office 20xx, particularly before broadband access replaces dial-up connections. Laptop users will rebel against being tied to a power socket and an expensive wireless connection – something that would prevent computing in places such as subways, airplanes or cabins in the woods. These obstacles will disappear gradually, but not entirely, not cheaply and not soon.
Second, most users of Microsoft products feel that once we’ve finally got a stable and productive configuration we want to keep that configuration. Imagine the horror of working with a new and “improved” version of Office every time you log on. The on-going bug fixes and security updates will be nice, but Microsoft’s “improvements” have often caused more problems than they solved; their abominable record of service releases for Office leaves little room for optimism.
Third, in the wake of Melissa and the Love Bug virus, no MIS manager will cheerfully-accept an approach that relies on Microsoft for network security. Sure, firewalls will provide additional security but the number of back doors this approach would open into corporate networks is downright scary. Until Microsoft begins to take security seriously, adoption of .Net will require a leap of faith many managers won’t be prepared to take.
For these and other reasons,.Net won’t replace traditional software distribution any time soon. It will consume considerable resources better spent finding out what customers really want and providing it. We’ll soon see whether Microsoft can ignore user needs this badly in pursuit of their own vision, unlike those of us who write for a living and understand that we can’t ignore our audience.
Hart (email@example.com) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.