There's a new patent application from Microsoft that's pretty confusing: It describes what is essentially a pay-as-you-go PC, with certain functions locked out at both the hardware and software level until released by a payment system. The lock-outs in the "Metered Pay-As-You-Go Computing Experience" theoretically cover the processor, storage and particular pieces of software, and the application mentions an hourly rate.
At the hardware level, the system could choose the processor speed, the number of cores operating at any one time, how much disk storage you can access and how much of the available memory is addressable. Software like word processors or particular games would unlock only for the time you've paid for. Imagine you want to play a high-end, graphics intensive game: You'd have to fork over some cash to beef up the CPU, GPU and addressable memory--and possibly for the game itself. Word processing obviously takes less CPU time, but you'd probably want some decent memory space.
The system would center around a hardware/software "security module" which keeps a tally of the user's computer needs and is "coupled with a secure, auditable measurement and payment scheme." The security module may also tie the computer to a particular service provider--say an IleSP--for the duration of a contract.
So it sounds like Microsoft wants to be able to charge you to use almost every aspect of a personal computer, from browsing the net upwards through office-type productivity to full-on gaming, and tie you to a provider in the same way cellphones are on contract nowadays. The machine would have maximum capability built-in, but without some sophisticated cracking you'd have to pay to use it, and pay regularly.
And that sounds bizarrely confusing, if you're thinking about a home PC. But in an office environment, it begins to make a little more sense: You'd effectively be renting your computer time and power, based on your specific requirements on dynamic basis--much as in the initial days of research computing, when you'd buy chunks of processor time. And it's how some supercomputer access happens now. And in a net cafe environment, this sort of rental scheme also makes much sense, at least for the person receiving the cash.
If the machine came for free, or heavily subsidized as the patent in fact suggests, then the idea also becomes a little more acceptable, though it would still end up with a long-tail financial requirement for you if you want to keep computing away. Microsoft's argument that though it may cost more than a one-off PC purchase you'd have the benefit of extended "useful life" of the machine doesn't quite hold water though: These computers won't suddenly have mega-whizzy tech inside that will future-proof them, exactly as one-off purchase machines don't. They'll still age and lag the leading edge of technology, but as a user you could make it feel like the machine was keeping up by paying more to release the lock-down stranglehold. And sure, high-level hardware standardization could let PC makers keep the costs down, but it's hard to see by how much, and easy to see it could slacken the impetus to develop next-gen tech.
I can't shake off the sense of malevolence this patent carries with it: Microsoft's business practices have been called into question in the past, and who knows what it would be like to have to pay hourly to use all the features of a PC that's fully capable, but temporarily crippled as it sits on your home desk. The "homework" tab on the patent imagery is particularly nasty: paying do do homework? No thanks.
But I suspect--hope, really--that the reason we won't see this sort of system in common use soon is that it doesn't quite chime with the way the world uses its billions of PCs currently.