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Until the Net is fast enough?
By Scott Bradner
It sure seems like a good idea. The biggest computer retail chain or smallest mom and pop store can sell a wide range of software while they only have to dedicate a few square feet of hard to find floor space to the effort. But it's taking a long time to get going, but maybe, just maybe this summer.
Just about 3 years ago Protocol Technologies announced Software ToGo, (http://www.softwaretogo.com/) a burn-to-order software distribution system. A customer would select the software they want by using LCD-based a small stand-alone kiosk and get a bar coded order ticket in return. The customer would then take the ticket to a casher and pay for the software. The ticket would then be used to tell an "Order Fulfillment Station" what the customer had bought. The Order Fulfillment Station would then use a secure Internet connection to get a key to unlock a copy of the desired software store on a disk drive in the station and burn the software into a CD on the spot. The station would also print out full color inserts for the CD case and a set of quick start instructions, complete with a unique serial number and "certificate of authenticity." The clerk would then assemble the package and hand it to the customer. The whole burning and assemble process should take less than 5 minutes. Protocol has at least one US patent (5,784,460) related to the system.
The press releases on the Protocol Technologies web site show that some high-profile companies were going to test the system, including Office Depot and Radio Shack but the web site does not have any information on how those trials went. The most recent development seems to be that CompUSA will be deploying the system in their stores this summer, at least according to Apple Computers. (http://developer.apple.com/mkt/softwaretogo.html)
If the system works as advertised, CompUSA could "stock" a far wider range of software, including old or eclectic titles, than they otherwise would be able to. But, the system's success will heavily depend on getting a wide range of software publishers to sign up. The Protocol web site says that "Software ToGo carries products from close to 90% of the top-selling software publishers" without saying how many titles are carried from each publisher or who the publishers are.
Software is not the only material that is suitable for a burn-on-demand system. A few baby steps are underway for burn-on-demand custom mix music CDs. Sony music seems to be experimenting with the idea but as a burn-and-ship service rather than an in-store system. Sony has set up a web site where you can build your own Dylan CD, but with a quite limited repertoire, only one or two songs from 35 of Dylan's 46 albums, they will then ship you the CD. (http://www.custommixcd.com/dylan/)
I hope that both of these ideas are successful and temporary. The first application, software delivery, can already be done quite well over broadband Internet and should done that way far more often in the future and the second application, music delivery, is waiting for the music publishers to understand that there is an Internet they can use not just fight.
disclaimer: Harvard uses physical self-delivery of its main product, educated students, and has not expressed an opinion about using the Internet instead.