Demo '97: Sound Blaster to get software metering chip

Guy Kewney reporting live from Demo '97 in Palm Springs, California

Your sound card could be watching you, in less than a year, counting the times you use your software, and charging you. It will be doing this for software rental firms.

Software rental has been a dream for years, dating back to the days of Prestel, and it's never worked, says Stephen K. Sprague at Wave Systems, because nobody has been able to charge for fractions of a penny. Naturally, he says this because he can.

'Rent to own' is his buzz-phrase. Link into a site, rent the program and use it until you've used it long enough that you've paid for it, at which point it's yours. And his trick is simple enough: he's talked Creative Labs into including his WaveMeter chip on their next generation of sound cards, to ship this autumn.

"The fact is that you need a PC for this sort of thing, and it's a big hole in the typical Network Computer (NC) concept," Sprague said. "The typical NC just doesn't have enough power to keep track of software usage on a minute by minute basis, and the smart card approach is no better, because it doesn't have the storage capacity."

Storage capacity on a smart card is easily enough to keep track of how much you use the software, he agrees what it can't do is keep track of all the suppliers out there. And the data has to be held in a secure device, because there's no way to stop someone deleting data held on a

disk. If the transaction details are held on disk, a program could over-write them illegally. Sprague says his scheme will go beyond software; he'll be able to handle pay-per-view TV, DVD and CD-ROM sales across the wire.

Other software rental concepts are being tried. TestDrive Corporation, for example, offers a "complete electronic shrinkwrap solution for the Internet", but this is basically an encryption and unlocking technology, not rental.

TestDrive has some big names signed up, including Prodigy, Dell, PC World, McAfee, Microsoft and Starfish, but this pales into insignificance compared to Wave's agreement with IBM, which is going to build WaveMeter into its own Cryptolope technology, offering consumers access to all content with a single purchasing account.

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