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Jonathan Schwartz, President and Chief Operating Officer of Sun Microsystems, thinks that hardware will be free in the next few years. Instead, we will rent our software, signing up for multi-year maintenance contracts. There have recently been similar comments made about automobiles. The car would be free but we would pay for the service agreement.

This would certainly free us from the need to keep purchasing upgrades for buggy Windows operating systems. However, would the hardware be upgraded as often? Moore’s Law suggests that the processing power doubles and the price is cut in half every 18 months. Feature bloated software takes advantage of this fact, and pushes us to upgrade to the next big thing. Would hardware manufacturers, who have a real cost to manufacture, want to provide us new stuff that often?

What about situations where the hardware manufacturer does not make the software? Actually that is true for pretty much all Windows and Linux systems. Would the hardware manufacturer bundle some software when they ship the hardware? Where would the upgrades come from?

This idea could work well in an environment where one company can control an integrated supply, delivery, and aftermarket chain. Automobile companies manufacture the product and exert a great deal of control over the delivery and maintenance channel, so this could work for them. However, doing it successfully in the computer hardware/software arena would require much closer cooperation than currently exists. The constantly changing nature of the business may make it impossible to achieve the kind of platform stability that would be needed. For example, who could have predicted a mere five years ago that an upstart operating system like Linux would achieve the kind of penetration that puts it in IBM as during primetime on television?