Merits of a subscription model

Recently, my sister-in-law picked up an iPad that she would be able to do her work when not in front of her iMac. A week later, my Brother called me bent out of shape because he could not edit a Word document from it. After I explained that Microsoft Office requires an Office 365 subscription, he was bullshit. “What’s the point of having an iPad?” He exclaimed. I provided him another option: use Pages. He wasn’t satisfied with that either. I was unsure the real issue — does he think software should come at no cost? — but I was reminded me of the rise of the subscription model and how little people understand it.

There is a disconnect when it comes to cost. Price, I should say, price is actually the right term here. People seem price sensitive when it comes to how much they pay for something. In the case of software, there is a hold out amongst most where they want to own software. The disconnect comes from a misunderstanding of how the current business model works. For some, the disconnect comes from not valuing what costs developers face, especially in their time. (That goes for any small business owner or professional. Oddly enough, I find a faction of people are both simultaneously unsatisfied with low salaries/wages and obsessed with low prices. How can both of these things be reconciled?)

Back in the day, when you bought a software program, it came on a physical medium — remember those prompts to “insert disk 17”? You paid for this once, owned the program, and basically lived with it until such time the next version came out or a newest version arrived which had a feature set you actually cared about.

Expectations are different now. Now, we expect software with free and continuous upgrades. Gone are the days when “updates” and “upgrades” were more in sync, aside from perhaps a catastrophic software patch. Buy a program — an app — and ne’er a month goes by when there isn’t an update notification awaiting. In the last few years, we have witnessed the rise of the subscription model. I think the moment I knew we had passed the point of no return was Microsoft’s announcement for Office 365.

I am a huge proponent of Ulysses — I am writing this using Ulysses and a 12.7” iPad Pro as a matter of fact — and earlier this year they sprang a subscription on its users just as many others have done. You too, Ulysses? Is this the end of buying and owning software? How does this development cycle work? What are the consequences to developers and to users?

Accompanying their announcement, Soleman — developers of Ulysses — made a post to their blog detailing the realities of their business, which I found both compelling and telling of the industry as a whole. Well-articulated, they really got to the crux of the problem. I was so pleased with their efforts to bring me along their journey, and not just forcing “the inevitable” upon me, that I decided to sign-up right then and there. (Not to mention that I wanted to continue using their product.)

Interestingly enough, the way we pay for software hasn’t caught up to that rather drastic change in development yet. We still pay for the product at the time of its release, meaning we’re still paying for its past development cost. However, we now expect the product to magically evolve over time, via downloadable updates, without a need to constantly pay for new versions.

For some reason, this model has gained a popular label which can only be seen as a major fallacy: Paid upfront. No, it isn’t. It never was. We still only pay for the version at time of release; apps don’t spring into existence, after all. If anything, this model is “pay once”.

This definitely puts it all into context for me. In a bigger way, it resonates with me too. As a small business owner, I know — or feel as though — people are price sensitive. Often the first thing people as about is price and not value, which is an interesting behavior I hope to explore more.

So why bother at all then? Well, we need a good way forward before we run into trouble. We want to make sure the app will be around for years and years to come. We want to heavily invest in its development, and this requires the right setting for our team, our families and our users. Writers want to rely on a professional tool that is constantly evolving, and we want to keep delivering just that.

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