Quite a few years ago the software industry decided that end-users couldn't buy software, but could only get a licence to use it. That just happened to have a fortuitous side-effect in the, then-running, sales tax debate. After all, if the main cost of the package was in the non-taxable licence fee, the tax on the blank disks was negligible.
That's not to say the law agreed about the licence. To tell a user that they're not allowed to resell the package because the licence is for them and them alone goes against all reasonable expectations of buying goods. Imagine allowing someone to sell their washing machine, but requiring them to erase the firmware in the control circuitry first.
For all this insistance that the package was just a way of delivering the "licence", software manufacturers have spent a lot of time, money and shelf space making their products look a lot more "weighty" than they really are. A bane of computer journalists is getting all the packing back inside the review software box so the package looks normal on the shelf. Nowadays the average end-user software box is 1 per cent disk, 2 per cent useless cards and offers, 2 per cent manual and 95 per cent packing and air. But of course, the packages would be much harder to sell if they were an honest 8mm thick!
One irony of this trend of doing away with printed manuals is that there's little difference between buying a package, like a utility, off the shelf or off the Internet. In fact, the Internet-delivered package is almost certain to be much more up-to-date, and although it will still have just as many bugs, they'll be more current bugs.
One difficulty is getting users to pay for software they download from the Net. Most of us are used to getting free copies of demo- and shareware, and despite the fact that it's exactly the same value as something in a box, it doesn't seem as valuable. At least it doesn't until you have an urgent need for it. It's amazing how quickly people will hand over their credit card details when it's the only thing between them and a disaster.
The reverse of this scenario is the plethora of shovelware CDs that are being imported and produced here in Australia. For as little as $5, a user can buy a CD full of shareware that isn't even worth a dollar. By the way, whatever happened to those shareware vending machines that were going to be in every shop in Australia? All you had to do was dial-up the program you wanted and it would be copied onto a diskette.
Lost in space
Some people are suggesting a micropayment system for e-mail on the Internet. That means you'd pay a minimal amount for each message you send (say half a cent) but this money would add up to the point where it could be used to help all users, and discourage spamming as well. What about software? Is it possible that some forms of software could eventually be "user-pays" such that you pay a cent or so every time you use the program? The logistics are frightening, but it's worth thinking about!