Microsoft have attempted to patent a pay-per-use computer model, wherein users would receive a free (or heavily subsidized) PC and be charged ongoing fees depending on tasks it was used to complete. The patent, titled "Metered Pay-As-You-Go Computing Experience", was filed on June 21st 2007 and published on December 25th; it describes a machine with "scalable performance level components and selectable software and service options" including throttled processor, memory and graphics controller, the speed of which could be balanced against the cost per use.
"Software and services may include word processing, email, browsing, database access, etc. To support a pay-per-use business model, each selectable item may have a cost associated with it, allowing a user to pay for the services actually selected and that presumably correspond to the task or tasks being performed. An administrator may use a similar user interface to set performance levels for each computer in a network, allowing performance and cost to be set according to a user's requirements" Microsoft patent
Both individual and corporate customers are seen as potential markets for such a scheme. The former, Microsoft suggests,would be more likely to choose a high-spec machine if the initial cost was lower, only paying for the extra performance when it was used, e.g. during gaming. Low-power activities such as web browsing would be cheaper. Enterprise customers, meanwhile, might appreciate the central control and granularity of choice: "to select a level of performance related to processor, memory, graphics power, etc that is driven not by a lifetime maximum requirement but rather by the need of the moment."
"The office bundle may include word-processing and spreadsheet applications, medium graphics performance and two of three processor cores," the document reads. "The gaming bundle may include no productivity applications but may include 3D graphics support and three of three processor cores. The browsing bundle may include no productivity applications, medium graphics performance and high-speed network interface."
"Charging for the various bundles may be by bundle and by duration. For example, the office bundle may be $1.00 [68 pence] per hour, the gaming bundle may be $1.25 per hour and the browsing bundle may be $0.80 per hour. The usage charges may be abstracted to 'units/hour' to make currency conversions simpler. Alternatively, a bundle may incur a one-time charge that is operable until changed or for a fixed-usage period"
While acknowledging that users may end up paying more over the lifespan of their computer than if they had bought outright, Microsoft suggest that being able to control the cost/performance balance will flatten the upgrade curve and remove the significant step involved in moving from one computer to the next. A "metering agent" would be within each machine, keeping it locked to one provider and ensuring that whoever supplied the PC would be the people paid for its ongoing us.
Whether or not any commercial scheme emerges from this remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though: metering agents would be the next big target for hackers worldwide.