App Subscriptions

In August 2017 my favorite writing app, Ulysses, changed from a one-time purchase price to a subscription model. They gave a lifetime 50% discount for existing users. If you just purchased the apps recently you could be eligible for up to 18 months free1. While I don’t use Ulysses every day, it is my primary writing tool on both macOS and iOS.

Even with a generous discount, I still wasn’t happy with the change. So, I looked at other writing tools that weren’t based on subscriptions. I’m not going to go into a lot of that analysis here, but basically none of those apps were as tuned to my writing process as Ulysses is. Most of them would let me write and post to WordPress, or work on long-form writing, but none of them worked for me as smoothly as Ulysses. So, I paid the yearly subscription price and told myself I had a year to see if this worked out for me. My chief problem with app subscriptions is if I stop paying for the app, I have to stop using the app; it’s a rental vs. owning model.

Recently, Clip Studio Paint came out for the iPad Pro. It has a 6 month free trial, and then jumps to $9 a month (or $108 a year to save you the math). I got into a Twitter exchange with Eric Merced about my thoughts on the pricing. Looking back on it, I realized his position on Clip Studio Paint’s subscription model was similar to how I ended up defending Ulysses when I switched to the subscription app. Eric also mentioned to me that the desktop version of Clip Studio is $219, and the iPad version is a near feature-complete version of that app. So, one way of looking at it is that two years of subscriptions pays for the app, with free upgrades thrown in. Eric was correct when he pointed out that most people would pitch a fit over a $219 iPad app.

I liked the old method of software development: I pay you for your effort to create the app and if you create a new version, I will likely upgrade to that. This model, though, doesn’t work for app developers. The App Store itself is a race to the bottom. Users want free updates for life from the 99-cent app they bought and cry foul when the developer releases a new version and charges for it. Apple does not have a system for paid upgrades. Developers are kind of in a lose-lose situation. Users of these apps are also.

I’ve worked at reducing my total subscriptions this year. With apps like Affinity Photo, I was able to eliminate my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. School has an Office 365 account so I can use that instead of needing a personal account. I do pay for iCloud storage, though, because it provides value. Eliminating those subscriptions allow me to feel good about subscribing to Ulysses.

A lot of people — myself included — have argued that the iPad Pro (especially the 12.9”) is a pro-level device, and pro-level apps need to cost more than a buck to sustain development. The subscription model falls into a bad analogy. Typically, the response is something along the lines of: buy a few less coffees a month, you cheap bastard. The problem with that argument — outside of the fact that I buy a high-priced coffee so little it’s not worth discussing2, those $4-8 a month subscriptions add up to some serious money. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. At what point does an app subscription become too much? Does one set a budget on subscriptions? By having a monthly subscription a developer is forcing us to ask each month if their app is worth paying for. When that answer becomes no, the revenue goes away. It’s a bit of of mental overload thinking about this every month.

Desktop OSs are fairly stable at this point. There is little in a macOS upgrade that will break a lot of apps at this point3. iOS upgrades aren’t there yet. Sweeping architecture changes occur every year. New iOS versions frequently break existing apps. Either because they changed how an API calls a function, or the developer hacked together a solution the upgrade breaks, or iOS just changed enough. App developers have to scramble to get their apps upgraded. I don’t think it’s fair to expect free upgrades for life because Apple adds new features to iOS. Subscriptions give the developers a way to fund those yearly upgrades. I’m not 100% against subscriptions. I think the complexity of the app coupled with the pace of feature-rich upgrades factor in to whether I will subscribe to the app. I’d also like it if the app reverts to a model where you can at least export your content if you let the subscription lapse.

  1. This involved whether you own the iOS and macOS apps, and when you bought them. So, if within the month or two prior to the announcement, if you bought both apps you would get 18 months free.
  2. Funnily enough, I’m sitting in a Starbucks drinking one while I write this.
  3. Yes, High Sierra introduced a new file system, but those types of architecture changes are few these days.
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