Does it make sense to buy a computer and not install software on it?


(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

There is a way to do something useful with a computer which is pretty trendy nowadays: Application Service Providers (ASP). These are companies which install and set up software programs on their computers and then let you use them through the Internet, normally inside a web browser. The most popular category of software of this kind is online office suites, that is Internet-based systems to write office text, spreadsheets and presentation.

ASPs normally make money either placing advertisement in the browser windows or simply charging their users a monthly fee. In this way, home computers become very little more than a long extension cord connecting the monitor and keyboard in one’s living room to the remote computer where all the action takes place. Ordinary people just use the programs, somebody else spends his or her time figuring out how to install, configure and maintain them up and running.

The selling point behind this and many similar trends is the question “When it comes to computers, who do you want to be, a user or a programmer? Can you afford to be both? Why should you? Let us do the dirty job for you. Don’t waste time and money to buy, configure and maintain expensive computers and software. Just use the programs you need and be productive now, for heaven’s sake! Who cares if you’re doing it through a web browser?

Installing all the software only on one central computer which acts like an ASP, so that all the employees or students cannot alter it, is the standard way of working of many organizations and, indeed, a smart thing to do in those scenarios. This is because the users of such ASPs are all in the same building or closed network, very close to the central computers, not on the other side of the Internet: it is very easy to work more efficiently, reduce maintenance costs and still guarantee reliable operations in such restricted environments.

Outside closed organizations, that is when it is offered as a service to the general public, the ASP way of working makes still sense in many situations. Other times, however, it just looks like the Internet-enabled version of “don’t worry, and don’t bother to understand, just give us all the money we ask for”. Of course, you have to focus on your core business, and who dares being caught out not doing that? What would mommy say?

Almost all of us are not programmers, nor have any need or interest in becoming one. From this point of view, freely giving some money or attention to somebody else, so you can keep doing what you know best does look like a wise move, and in many cases it may actually be so. There are also many cases, however, where the contrary is true.

When running a business, especially a small one, outsourcing bookkeeping and tax returns to an external certified accountant is probably a smart thing to do, because fiscal law has been made so complicated that almost everybody faints just being close to a manual.

When it comes to things that you must do yourself as soon as possible, however, things can be very different. Here are some cases when, if you have to do something with a computer, you do want to have all your hardware and software in front of you, not in some vault many miles away:

  • when Internet connectivity is not guaranteed

  • when you need decent speed: in real world conditions, it only takes one slow computer between you and the ASP to slow down everything you do

  • when being forced to work with a reduced user interface, in a small portion of your monitor doesn’t really slow you down

  • when doing really basic or simple things that you need to do repeatedly. What would you say, for example, to somebody suggesting “Here, don’t bother learning how to read, write, and multiply by ten, I’ll do it for a fee, so you can focus on your core business…”?

  • whenever privacy matters. Using a remote ASP as if it were your computer means you have to trust it enough to be sure that your personal files are not handed over to somebody else, and that nobody else is eavesdropping.

  • when you are a Public Administration that must keep complete control on all its data and guarantee that they always remain accessible, since they belong to all citizens!

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