Matt Gemmell

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An action-thriller novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Subscription Software

tech 2 min read

My favourite writing app, Ulysses, recently went subscription-only. I signed up. Subscriptions always court controversy, understandably. Here are a few thoughts.

I believe in the argument that developers need sustainable income. Paying once and then getting free updates for years isn’t reasonable. Paid upgrades can help, but subscriptions are probably a more stable business model. I can see the attraction. Beyond that, who knows?

The important point is that, if you’re able to readily switch to a different app when your current one changes its payment model, then… do it. Just vote with your wallet, and don’t worry about it. To write a pissy review of an app you liked yesterday, in an attempt to vengefully damage their business, is pretty reprehensible, right? It’s like giving one star on Amazon because the delivery was late. Don’t be a child. Move on.

For those who can’t or don’t want to switch to another app, like me, I’d advise thinking about the value proposition. Like it or not, your options here in the non-hypothetical world are either to subscribe, or quit. Choose one. Personally, I use Ulysses for hours every day. What they want is a few dollars per month to keep it updated, running well on new OS versions and devices, and maybe add some new features. For that price, I also get the app for every platform. Given how I use it, that’s an easy decision.

Do I want to subscribe to every app I have? No. Would I? No. Are subscriptions a general answer to the appalling App Store revenue model? No, because the concept just isn’t scaleable. The psychological barrier to a recurring financial commitment is too great, in the general case.

If an app I use switches to a subscription model, I ask myself:

  1. Do I use this at least a few times a week?
  2. Am I personally invested in its future?
  3. Is it indispensable somehow, maybe because of file-format lock-in, industry standard usage, or something like that?

If it’s something I rarely use, I’ll probably just pick another app. If I’m not invested in it (in terms of its specific workflow, features, user experience and such), it’s even easier for me to just move away.

But if I can truthfully answer yes to one or more of those questions, and the subscription isn’t extortionate on a monthly basis, then I’ll sign up and see how I feel about it later. If I’m strongly committed, I’ll sign up for a year. If I’m less sure, one month. I’ll review it before renewal, in either case — and again, I only even reach this stage for apps which pass the above test; a tiny minority. If the apps don’t see timely updates and bug-fixes during the subscription period, obviously I’d be motivated to quit. I think that’s reasonable.

That’s what it all boils down to for me. Am I super-comfortable with subscription software? Nope. I doubt I’ll ever love the idea. But I can deal with it, if it keeps the handful of apps I really, really need updated and available.

As for the rest, well, moving to subscriptions isn’t just a change in payment model: it’s a shift in implicit target customer. It’s saying “we’re going to focus on customers who really need/want this app, enough to commit to it on an ongoing basis”. If I don’t fall into that new category, then clearly I should just move on. People can sell to whomever they like, after all.

Sure, I might be annoyed that an app I kind-of like is no longer really targeted at me, business-model-wise. But to gripe about it? Nah. Just find something else — ideally something you have stronger positive feelings about — and use that instead.

(My software subscriptions at the moment: Ulysses, and Office. My Office household subscription is mostly for my wife, and has a couple of years of credit on it from a special offer. After that, we’ll see.)