I've been thinking about the differences between "renting" and "owning" software recently because of Windows Vista and the beta of Microsoft Windows 7 ("Vista Reloaded"). (Yes, my friends, I have Vista running on a computer. Not Win7, though. The beta would not install.)
My opinion is that Microsoft needs to adopt a licensing solution that does not penalize its customers.
What consumers receive (or will receive) for their money when buying one of these operating systems is, in short, a rental agreement represented by a sequence of digits (an unlock key). The use of the unlock key is tied to the hardware on which the OS is installed. If a user upgrades or replaces a significant component of the computer, the user must seek Microsoft's permission to use the unlock key. The retail version of the OS allows a certain number of new installations with the unlock code. After that, the user must ask Microsoft for permission or buy a new unlock key. The OEM version of the OS is even more limited.
This is much different from the licensing of previous versions of Windows (which were, I note, successful products). In previous versions, the consumer had the software medium and the unlock key. The number of new installations with this unlock key was/is unlimited. I can still install my (legitimate) copy of Windows 2000, which I had to do recently for a development project. I can still install my (legitimate) copy of Windows XP. Whereas I consider this to be value for my money, Microsoft thinks my value is their loss. But 5 years from now, I may have used the all the permitted renewals of a Vista unlock key. In the last 5 years, I have had hard disks crash and mainboard problems, as well as a new computer or two.
I bought a software product (name not necessary) in the 1990s that was unique and very good. It was also expensive. To prevent piracy, the company sold the product with a parallel-port dongle. I detest the dongle but I have to admit that I can't think of a more effective anti-piracy measure. I'd be punished if I lost the dongle, but that just means I have to keep track of it. I am still using the software after almost 15 years -- I'd say I've got my money's worth.
I cannot say I feel the same about Microsoft's new licensing strategy. It's like having a dongle with an expiry date. Apple ties OS X to its own computers and no one else sells Macs (i.e. the Computer Is The Dongle). Linux is free and can be installed anywhere. Real dongles are not popular for a good reason. And, given that dongles can be cracked and cracks can be distributed today better than ever before, a dongle isn't a guarantee of licence protection. But is the only somewhat effective way for Microsoft to sell Windows under terms that are favourable to them *without* penalizing customers to sell a Windows Dongled Edition?
Or is it an outdated notion that consumers should be able to choose the (1) computer on which they install the OS (and change their minds as it suits them), and be able to use the product as long as it is useful to them?