Renting Features

The licensing, use, and ownership of software has been quite a contested topic for years. Many people have assumed they “own” the copy of Quicken or Halo that they bought, but modifying or even reselling the bits has been a contested right by many vendors. It seems that courts seem to lean towards the perpetual rental of those bits rather than ownership.

We’ve gotten used to that in software, but what happens when this extends into the real world? There is a piece at Ars Technica about BMW looking to “unlock” features on their cars if owners want to pay for them. These are things like heated seats or perhaps sports suspension that are installed, but not activated. You could subscribe to the feature on a trial basis, and then activate it for a year or two if you wanted to pay a fee. The interesting thing here is that you could even do this with a secondhand car.

The comments from many people are disparaging, and rightly so, since so many vendors have looked to make money with these options, often in a way that isn’t quite fair for the consumer. There is certainly concern and outrage about the cost of these features if they can be installed in every car without payment, and there are weight/fuel considerations as well. While heated seats might not use more fuel, I’d assume something like adaptive suspension or extra speakers in a sound package do reduce mileage.

In some sense, I do understand this approach. I’ve purchased computer hardware with extra CPU and RAM that could be “rented” for a short time, or purchased. In the case of a car, I’d like to be able to “purchase” heated seats forever with a similar charge to what I’d initially pay. Or maybe a rental makes sense if this includes a warranty while the item is rented. Certainly being able to turn this on later on a secondhand car would be great. There’s also the idea that you could turn off a feature you didn’t like and stop paying.

I also understand the cost structure here. If every car is built the same, the costs of manufacturing go down, even if there is some loss on a percentage of customers not using the feature. If too few turn this on, I’m sure BMW (and others) abandon the idea. If enough do, I expect we’ll see other features, especially the electronic ones, being added to the list of options.

Ultimately, the use of software to lock features, and unlock them, makes sense in some cases and not in others. The devil is in the details, and certainly I think companies need to tread carefully here, ensuring they are pricing the options in a fair way. I also think they need to account for perpetual ownership as one of the options.

Cars are notoriously modifiable, and I do think this will succeed. I’m sure there will be jailbreaks and unlock codes available all over the Internet, but I’m not sure this will stop vendors from renting features. There are ways people can modify iPhones already, though I’m not sure most consumers care.

Steve Jones

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