Metered computing, as outlined by Microsoft in a patent application, isn't the worst idea I've heard -- but it ranks up there with other spectacular failures like the original DivX, AOL dial-up, and the 2008 Detroit Lions.
The idea, as outlined in this article by David Meyer, is that people would buy "heavily subsidized" (cheap) PCs, but then pay charges based on how much computing time and processing power they used.
Microsoft notes in the application that the end user could end up paying more for the computer, compared with the one-off cost entailed in the existing PC business model, but argues the user would benefit by having a PC with an extended "useful life."
"A computer with scalable performance level components and selectable software and service options has a user interface that allows individual performance levels to be selected," reads the patent application's abstract. The patent application was filed June 21, 2007.
Be sure to read the rest in Meyer's article. Note that this is speculation based on a patent filed by Microsoft: I'm not aware of any concrete plans from Microsoft to roll this out, but I thought it'd be fun to discuss.
If they do, however, I can't see it catching on. Who wants to monitor their PC usage for fear of spending too long online or using too much CPU or memory, lest they get a big ding in the form of a hefty bill at the end of the month? Just because people have put up with this sort of thing from their mobile providers, doesn't mean they'll get onboard for pay-as-you-go computing. In fact, the experience with cell phone bills is likely to make any smart customer very wary of Microsoft's metered computing idea. (Note that, on the enterprise side, having the same sort of ability -- to pay only for the compute time you use, makes much more sense -- but for home users? Not such a hot idea.)
The current proprietary software model for consumer PCs is bad enough. But license fees look like a bargain compared to metered computing -- which Microsoft acknowledges will increase the cost of ownership of a PC over the PC's lifetime. Aside from the cost factor, which is a pretty big downside to start with, there's the enforcement side. Part of metered computing is the ability to shut off service.
Picture this scenario, if you will: It's the start of a new billing cycle. You or one of your family members is sitting down at the computer to write that report for work or school that's due tomorrow. For some reason, a payment wasn't processed correctly, and suddenly the computer is locked up. Even if you do get the situation ironed out the same days, it's an hour out of your life getting it smoothed out. Or perhaps the validation server is down, and you're out of order for the next day while they get it smoothed out. This isn't far-fetched -- people have already been bitten by just this sort of problem with Windows Genuine Advantage.
Contrast this with the open source model: The up-front cost for a Linux distro is either free or very minimal (if you decide to pay for a physical copy rather than download) and the long term cost for updates and use is, well, nothing.
Odds are, this idea is in the nascent stage, and may never be rolled out. With the economy being what it is, I can't see any vendors making a straight-faced argument to ask customers to pay more for what amounts to less. Maybe I've been doing this open source thing too long, though, and gotten used to paying nothing for my desktop usage. Is there demand for pay-as-you-go, or does it get a big thumbs-down?