"Power to the people!" is the new mantra in Silicon Valley.

Remember how Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) promised a $1 million prize to anyone who could improve the company's movie suggestions system by even a modest amount? Netflix liked that idea so much that it's already happening again. While this might sound like a lot of money invested in nebulous projects, Netflix is actually getting quite a bargain here. Software development is hard and expensive, and turning some of it over to the public can leverage the power of a global community very cheaply.

And now Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is trying its hand at the same concept. The Chromium project, which is the basis for the Google Chrome Web browser and thus the upcoming Google Chrome operating system as well, now offers payments ranging from $500 to $1,337 per security bug reported.

This is not a competition but an ongoing reward program, and open-source software backers like Mozilla have been doing this for years. But Google's direct sponsorship gives a business-class legitimacy to the idea. By offering small rewards for bug reports, Google and the Chromium developers hope to keep Chrome safer and more stable than anything else on the market, including Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Internet Explorer or the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) Safari browser.

I don't expect famed control freaks like Microsoft and Apple to jump aboard the crowd-sourcing trend anytime soon, but plenty of software businesses could benefit from this kind of on-the-cheap development. Even small rewards and obscure competitions can inspire top programmers to lend their talents to your cause, and I wouldn't be surprised if Netflix and Google used their reward programs as part of their internal recruitment processes. Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) could offer rewards for making Flash more stable and less of a resource hog; Viacom (NYSE:VIA) already hosts Rock Band tracks made by all comers, and a monetary incentive might produce marketable content; and what if Symantec (NASDAQ:SYMC) rewarded friendly hackers for stemming the inexorable tide of computer viruses?

The possibilities are endless, and the model is still young. It's a sensible move for Netflix and Google, and others are sure to follow. Who do you think starts the next rewards program? Discuss in the comments below.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google and Netflix, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Apple, Adobe Systems, and Netflix are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.