Monday, July 22, 2013

life for rent



I had been thinking for a while to get Office 365. I can't what about it exactly appealed to me, though the cloud features made it interesting for someone who, as I said previously, has 4 different Microsoft devices. But, being of the school of not buying what you don't need (OK, I'm not really from that school but sometimes I want to be, when I get the feeling I'm spending too much money - my financial life is very guided by feelings), I put that decision on hold.

What pushed me over the edge was the news that, for a limited time, Office 365 subscribers get 12 months of Xbox Live free. That seemed too great a deal to refuse so I made the purchase (being still technically a college student - as I'll get a second diploma - I paid the very very sweet University edition, which gives you four years of Office for the price of one). To my surprise, what my money bought me was four years of:

- Office Apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher and Outlook)
- 20 GB of SkyDrive (as I was, of course, an early adopter of the service, I already had 25 GB of space, which made for a total of 45 GB in the cloud)
- 60 minutes of international Skype calls to land lines anywhere (kind of) in the world
- 12 months of Xbox Live (getting the code was a pain - in fact, I was waiting to get it before writing the post, so as not to false advertise the package)

This got me thinking on the nature of the product. It's the first time that Office can be subscribed to, instead of bought, joining the ranks of other Microsoft subscription products such as Xbox Live or Music. And the fact that it offers so many things (such as Skype minutes - I mean, what does that have to do with Office, not to the mention Xbox Live thing) makes me think that at some point there may be a Microsoft Pass or something, granting you access to all of Microsoft products, that would become, in fact, services (the so called software as a service model). It would make Microsoft clients more akin to, say, clients of a bank: instead of a relationship between company and custumer that occurs once a year (or whenever a new version of a device or software is launched), we would have a constant relationship with the company, making the choice to stick with it or go to the competition a monthly, rather than yearly, affair.

This situation is more likely to happen than we may think; Adobe, for example, has deprioritized the Creative Suite, instead offering a, yes, you guessed it, subscription-based product, the Creative Cloud. I throws in every CS program and the kitchen sink for a monthly price (in annual commitments). This has created an uproar in the user base, but Adobe is not backing down, and soon many others will follow.

Subscriptions are slowly taking over one time purchases. Think about it: streaming companies like Pandora or Spotify are slowly denting the iTunes market share. Not to mention Netflix or Hulu's complete triumph in the video department. We're slowly getting used to small monthly payments that ensure, as long as we're paying, complete access to the service and all its updates.

This last part is the most crucial of all: in a world were we pay subscriptions for all the software and content we want, we won't truly own any of it, which at the same time ensures that we won't be left with something obsolete. A few years ago, users dreaded the day that the likes of Microsoft or Adobe announced the new versions of their products; that meant the one they owned had just become a thing of the past, and a new (expensive) payment was required to have the new, most recent, version. With subscriptions, we're paying all the time; the concept of "versions" no longer makes sense. Updates will become smaller and regular, fixing specific features in smaller time frames. We will always be on the vanguard, as long as we keep paying. The minute we don't, on the other hand, there will be no rear - we will be left out (in some cases, radically so - Adobe, for example, won't even grant you access to your files in the cloud if you stop paying).

How long will it take for that model to cross over to the physical world? Just the other day, major American carriers announced new model for device upgrades, shortening the time in which users can upgrade their mobile phone. As soon as you're done paying for your phone, you can request another, so you never truly keep it, it's more like leasing it (not really, because if you want to leave the carrier you can pay a fine and keep the phone, but you know what I mean). I foresee a future in which we the latest version of everything we own (phone, PC, car) but don't really own anything, because we just subscribe to these things.

What does this mean? Well, for starters, the gap that separates the rich from the poor will deepen - after all, should you lose your job or go through any other tragedy that takes away your means, you have nothing to fall back on, as you don't truly own your stuff (as the great Dido once said: "if my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy, well I deserve nothing more than I get 'cause nothing I have is truly mine"). That being said, things (specially in the digital realm) will probably become cheaper, as piracy will become a much more difficult, and serious affair (after all, it's one thing to generate false activation keys for a pirated program; it's quite another to fool the company's servers - or the bank's - into believing you're paying for a subscription when, in fact, you're not).

Subscriptions will end up empowering companies as it will give them total control over what they will sell (as they won't be selling it, you see, only lending it, or rather, renting it), but I believe it will also make products better (as the time between consumer feedback and product adjustment will be considerable shorter) and will give custumers a bigger chance of making a difference: whereas before, companies had to win us over with every new product, in this model they'll have to keeps us constantly satisfied, or else we'll cancel the subscription to go to another company (keep in mind though that monthly subscriptions are always pricier, so most people will end up making yearly commitments).

Is this a better future, or a darker one? Personally, I believe the moment you start craving for things like smartphones or cars, you're already selling a piece of your soul (I know I did). The good old times when having a car was for getting places faster and owning a phone was just to call and send SMS are gone; now it's the latest version or nothing - whatever last-gen product we have will quickly stop working for lack of the seller's support. Does is scare me to think that if and when I stop paying for my subscription I'll lose everything connected to that product or service? Yes, but then again, it will probably push me to a less materialistic life. Or so I hope. Oh crap, I forgot to pay Xbox Music... one month with no tunes in the gym. Or it would be, because I also forgot to pay the gym.

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