Ulysses

To subscribe or not to subscribe

That’s the question I want to discuss today. Recently, two of my favorite apps — DayOne and Ulysses — have announced that they are switching from the traditional purchased license to subscription models. That is, instead of buying the software, installing it on your computer and using it as long as you want or are able, you now have to pay an annual fee to keep on using it.

Maybe younger users won’t have a problem with this approach, but as someone accustomed to buying my software — I’ve been doing so for 35 years — I am very wary of the subscription model. Here are some of my concerns:

Ever accumulating annual fees

At first, when it is just a couple of apps that use the subscription model, it may not hurt so bad. But imagine if all of the apps you use on a daily basis move to this model. You could be paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars a year for the software you use. No thanks!

Loss of control

If you own the software, it will keep working fine even if the company that makes it goes out of business, sells out or decides to double the price. But with a subscription model, you may lose functionality, or the software may stop working altogether if the developer isn’t there any longer to keep the subscription going. Or if the developer decides to increase the price past your comfort zone, you’re stuck paying or giving up the app you’ve put so much of your effort into learning to use, and in which so much of your work may be stored.

Reduced incentive to improve the apps

With the purchase model, an app developer gets further payments from current users by improving the app and charging an upgrade fee. But with a subscription fee, the incentive to improve the app disappears. It’s true that market pressures may cause the developer to want to keep his or her app up with or ahead of the competition, but I don’t believe that will result in as frequent or significant improvements.

Fairness

Imagine you bought a car and then the auto maker tells you that, in order for them to continue to service your vehicle, you now have to lease it as well. While that may not be the perfect analogy, it is close to what happens to current users of an application who now are faced with the choice of deciding to keep using the old version or paying the subscription fee to keep it up to date. (I want to be clear, in each of the two cases, DayOne and Ulysses will continue working even if I don’t subscribe. But sooner or later, there will come a time when I have to subscribe or stop using the apps.)

But wait a minute. I do subscribe to apps. Am I not being inconsistent? Maybe. But maybe not. For example, I subscribe to TheBrain. But TheBrain has a tiered pricing structure. You can pay a one time fee to purchase the software and use it as long as you want. If you buy version 8 today, you get a free upgrade to the forthcoming version 9. Or you can subscribe to TheBrain Pro Combo. This gives you additional functionality: You can install TheBrain on any of your computers (Mac or Windows); you can sync your brains among all those computers; and you can access your brains on the web. So you are getting something in return for your subscription. And you are not forced to subscribe. You can use TheBrain without a subscription — there is even a free version that is very functional, especially if you just intend to use the app on one computer.

With DayOne and Ulysses, you really get nothing for your subscription that you weren’t getting before, except the vague promise of improvements. With both these apps, I wonder if the developers feel that they are near mature and can’t see adding enough improvements to coax users into paying for upgrades. I don’t know.

I also pay for subscriptions to cloud-based services like Dynalist. Well, what is there to buy? It’s a website. It doesn’t live on my computer. (I’d prefer it if Dynalist were an executable that I could run from my computer without internet connection, but that’s just not what it is.) I also subscribe to Evernote (Premium, I believe it is called). Again, I get something for my subscription — access to my notes offline, among other things. And there is a free version. If I decide to stop my subscription, I can still access my notes online.

In the old days, software cost a hundred dollars or even a lot more. Today, the AppStore has driven the initial cost of software down. I suspect this is part of the problem. Additionally, the AppStore doesn’t allow upgrade pricing — completely idiotic! So developers are forced to offer a short-term, low cost fee to purchase the new version to everyone.

I am not suggesting that developers are morally obligated not to switch to subscriptions. They are in business and are looking at how to maximize the investment in their time and effort. I actually wish Ulysses and DayOne well. Both apps are excellent, and I hope they succeed. But as more and more developers switch to subscriptions, I suspect the pool of users willing to do so will start drying up. I know they won’t have me as a customer any longer.

For a different perspective, see this blog post from author David Hewson, one of Ulysses biggest fans.

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