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A Subscription Pit Stop on the Road to Cloud Computing

Changing deep-set behavior and habits is difficult. I was reminded of that fact this week while writing a news story about a joint Microsoft/Novell effort to convince businesses in China to switch from free versions of Linux to paid, supported copies of Novell's SUSE Enterprise Linux. At first blush, you might think that Microsoft's cooperation in promoting Linux is central to that particular story. (And certainly, that's the tact I took in my own article about the event.) But looking at it more deeply, what this is really about is changing behavior.

More specifically, Microsoft's efforts in China aren't really about promoting Linux, paid or otherwise. It's about getting the fastest growing market on the planet to start doing something it's never done--actually pay for software. China, of course, is the nexus of pirated software consumption, and its citizens have grown up in a world where pirated versions of expensive commercial software can be found in street markets for what amounts to spare change.

Interestingly, in the rest of the world, where purchasing software is at least a regular and acceptable practice, Microsoft and other companies are also working to change behavior. Here, in better-developed markets, Microsoft has been steadily pushing users toward a new approach for software acquisition, the software subscription model. This is an effort at which Microsoft has failed repeatedly. But it refuses to thrown in the towel, and last week it began testing a new software subscription suite, code-named Albany, that combines Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition with its Windows Live OneCare security solution (itself already a subscription service) and various Windows Live and Office Live services. Microsoft hasn't yet announced pricing or the final branding, but Albany will be available by the end of the year. And it will be a subscription service.

Although the appearance of a consumer-oriented software subscription service may be of only passing interest to readers, I should at least point out that you, as a presumptive member of the IT workforce, are all representatives of that most revered Microsoft market: the enterprise. And in case it's not obvious, you've already been pushed down the road to software subscriptions some time ago via various volume licensing programs. In fact, the enterprise is a poster child for this type of software consumption.

The next step, clearly, is cloud computing, where software products and services are delivered electronically via the Internet cloud. What's interesting about this transformation from software delivered via some physical media to software delivered purely via electronic means is that it's been happening to various degrees for years. Heck, I used to download shareware PC products from the local BBS 20 years ago. But the final frontier for the industry, of course, is getting all types of customers to embrace this model for all types of software. It's one thing to download a shareware utility from a Web site; it's quite another to download Microsoft Office.

In fact, consumer uneasiness with this type of software distribution recently caused Microsoft to scale back its Windows Anytime Upgrade program, which allows users of Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, and Business to upgrade to higher-end versions of Vista. Before last month, you could do this electronically by paying Microsoft a fee in the range of roughly $80 to $200, depending on your Vista version and the product you were hoping to upgrade to, and all you'd receive, at first, was a Product Key, delivered electronically via email. You could then use your existing Vista installation DVD to upgrade to the new version using that Product Key.

This process was so scary and so difficult for consumers that Microsoft stopped offering it. Yes, Windows Anytime Upgrade still exists, but now when you order an upgrade online, Microsoft ships you a DVD that includes the Product Key printed on a paper sticker. No more electronic upgrades are offered, sorry.

And that is the gulf we need to cross. And the time it will take to arrive at our inevitable cloud-computing future will be dictated as much by our ability to change as it will be technical issues. For countries like China that have pirated more software than they've purchased, that path will be a long and painful one. But it's something we're all going to have to deal with in one way or another. Enterprises are the most enlightened, of course. But there's still work to be done and, I think, a huge and evolving difference between what you can accomplish internally and what you should accomplish internally. Changing behavior is difficult. But to survive and grow, that's exactly what we're going to need to do.

And edited version of this article originally appeared in the April 22, 2008 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.

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