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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Return of Software (From Retail Box to Cloud)

I remember a time when software was typically available only in large cardboard retail boxes often with large clunky manuals. And if there wasn’t a large clunky manual, some awkward cardboard filler that filled the space the sleeved CD-ROM and thin welcome guide couldn’t fill. And, like most people, I kept these boxes around in a bookcase for seemingly no reason whatsoever. A recent visit to Best Buy gave me a sense of how much software has changed. What I saw was a smaller selection of boxed software titles than I ever remembered seeing and I couldn't have been happier about it.

I’ve been working in some form of software for over a decade and I believe that while consumers understand the importance of software, somehow, it ultimately never seemed as valuable as hardware. Software piracy was commonplace in the 90s and early 2000s and probably still is. To make their product look more “tangible,” software developers had to spend money on packaging - and attractive packaging - to lure customers to actually buy their software. Fast forward to modern day and almost any software title is available via download (many offer an install disc for a small fee) and usually for much less than you'd expect. With Internet speeds getting faster and more affordable, the option to purchase software-for-download is not just available, it’s become the preferred option.

One of my favorite companies is Apple who is responsible for the mighty iTunes store as well as the App Store, a digital store built right into the operating system allowing for purchases of software titles anytime, including no shortage of free apps. With titles ranging from Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, Aperture and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to Angry Birds or even Grand Theft Auto, Apple’s App Store is an example of the convenience of purchasing - or even browsing - software titles at your leisure. Even the latest version of Apple’s operating system, OS X Lion, is available primarily as a download (for $29.99!). The rising popularity of netbooks, tablet computers and other computers that don’t even have an optical drive, would indicate that this digital option is quickly becoming the norm.

Our culture is embracing (has embraced?) a fully digital lifestyle with media purchases or subscriptions through services like iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, etc. And why shouldn’t it? When I was a teenager and I heard a song on the radio I liked, I would go to a record store and look for the album on cassette or maybe I’d just pick up the cassingle, which, if you you’re too young to remember what these were, they’re exactly what they sound like. These days, I can Shazam something I hear on the radio, television, etc. and it’ll tell me what it is and I can download the song immediately. Or if I have company over and we want to see the grossly underrated Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg classic, The Other Guys, I can simply rent or buy it digitally from any number of online stores (or maybe it’s even streaming on one my subscription services). Gone are the days of CD openers and fancy software packaging, we’re in the midst of a new chapter in the digital revolution and things are far from over.

But let’s get back to software apps. Not only is it more convenient and cheaper to purchase software these days, software has even evolved beyond downloading and installing. Look at a service like Netflix which, outside of a computer (or Netflix-enabled device), an Internet connection and the free Microsoft Silverlight plug-in, you don’t need anything else to stream video. Or look at a service like Hulu which, other than the free Adobe Flash plug-in, streams video effortlessly on your web browser. And then we get to SaaS (software-as-a-service) systems like CRM giant, Salesforce, or productivity apps like Google apps which give you an installed software-like experience through a web browser. Web apps like these are a testament of a great milestone in the digital age.

Not only are we accomplishing more today digitally, the sheer reliance on things like software backups, massive hard disks or even your own personal computer is becoming less and less necessary. We live in a time where all of your professional work can be done in the cloud where you’ll have access to all of the same work from your home. Or any computer for that matter. Instead of mixtapes, you can now create music playlists on a service like Spotify and have the same mixes available to you at home, on your smartphone or even at work. Why email the latest photos of your newborn or puppy to family when you could use a service like Yahoo!’s Flickr or Google’s Picasa and have and give access to your photos anywhere or to anyone? 

For me, I’m glad it's becoming less common to purchase software and media in retail packaging these days. Aside from being “green,” it saves on production costs thus keeping the real product as affordable as possible for us, the end-user. And I’m even more glad that almost everything I personally use is available as a service, which means I have access to my things, be it media, documents or my favorite personal finance web app, mint.com, anywhere I have an Internet connection. And if you ask me, not only is this evolution of software making life easier, it’s also making it a lot more fun.

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