Subscription rage

We all choose stupid hills to die on, and I’m no exception. Last week I was really perturbed at the Apple community for always endorsing the public opinion de jour, this time with respect to app subscriptions.

Ulysses, you see, announced they were moving their well-regarded writing app for Mac and iOS from one-time pay model to a subscription model. I’ll admit it grated just a bit. I was going to write an angry post about it, but time and beer convinced me of the inanity of being so mad about something so dumb. Still, there are some points to be made that counter the prevailing wisdom of the Apple community, which tends to see everything from a lens of what currently is or what solely favors developers.

There are good reasons for that — and by that, I’m speaking solely of the latter sentiment. There are no good reasons for thinking whatever is the current situation is the best situation other than lack of imagination, but it does happen a lot. Encouraging things that work for the benefit of indie developers, however, is hugely important. Mac and iOS are unique in having a lot of great apps and software of the caliber that just isn’t available on Windows or Android. People who actually care about user experience and design1 tend to find a more receptive audience on the Mac and iOS platforms. We like that and we want it to continue, so we want those people to make money and continue writing apps and supporting their existing apps for us.

So it’s definitely not that I don’t want software developers to make money. Anyone who used to listen to now ancient Pocket Sized Podcast (born Dec 2010, died Aug 2014) knows that I was always an advocate for paid apps and for people buying those apps and doing so cheerfully if they truly liked those apps and wanted the developers to remain in business.

I also know that the current App Store model and the modes of receiving payment available to developers makes it hard to make a living, combined with the fact that the race to the bottom killed all expectations on the part of end users that they should ever have to pay for software. I know a lot of people who are amazed that I’d ever pay for apps when there are usually (really bad) free alternatives available to some of the great indie paid apps I love.

I know all that. I get it. That’s why it grates so much when the standard Apple-blogger/podcaster attitude is that I’m a communist for thinking that subscriptions are a different thing and carry some downsides that even a pay-upfront/paid-upgrades model doesn’t. I’m not the only one who is tired of reading joyful announcements about how App X is now available for only $50 annually, and how we’re all doomed to hell if we don’t automatically jump up and down for joy at the news.

Here’s the thing, though: subscriptions are bills, regardless of how irritated people get with me when I say that. They are. They come due again after a specific period of time, and you pay them or lose service. If that’s not the definition of a bill, I don’t know what is.

Most bills in life are unavoidable, but they generally benefit the entire family. I have to pay car insurance, but it keeps me from bankrupting the family or leaving us without transportation if some idiot rams into me and totals my car (it actually happened recently, except my vehicle was just barely not totaled). My wife and daughter can share the Internet we pay for, we all need our garage and the stuff we flush down the toilet to go away.

Most apps-as-subscriptions, however, are available via IAP in the App Store, meaning any subscriptions I chose are taking money from the family and allocating it for my own wants. Someone in the Agile Tortoise slack channel said that my expectation of being able to share software with my family was really just theft from the developer. Apparently this person only started using software, because a lot of software has traditionally allowed multiple installations with some number limit. Other applications have offered multi-computer pricing at cheaper rates than buying individual copies of everything. Regardless, any Mac or iOS app subscription takes money from the family pool and requires me justifying a selfish purchase. The only way to avoid that fact honestly is to just not care about it. If you don’t care, that’s your choice, but don’t pretend it doesn’t matter or that it doesn’t exist.

Sometimes subscriptions really are more cost-effective than paying for upgrades for apps, depending on how often the upgrades come and whether you want to upgrade every time a new version is available. For example, as reviled as Adobe was for introducing the Creative Cloud subscription service in 2011, the photography bundle of Photoshop and Lightroom is actually a pretty amazing deal at $99 per year, particularly if you want to upgrade to major versions as they become available.

Even the Ulysses subscription pricing can be justified as a better deal, and certainly it works to the developers’ benefit. Most subscription models do work better for the app publisher, and many of them are financially sound in terms of total cost to the end-user. But they’re still bills, and they still invalidate the possibility of just not upgrading for awhile while continuing to use the old version. How many people used to use old versions of Photoshop for several years? Many.

To characterize the desire not to immediately upgrade all the time as evil, selfish, communist, or any other negative word that implies hatred of the Apple community is ridiculous. Yes, app users have to be honest and think about what it takes financially for small companies to develop and maintain software, but app developers also have to be honest and understand basic Human Psychology 101. Fighting with your customers and calling them cheap, unappreciative bastards may not be the best way to bring people around to your point of view. Wanting everyone to see how hard life is for you and then not considering the feelings or needs of people you’re trying to sell something to at all is… well, if you can’t see the problem with that, you shouldn’t even be in business.

I’ll admit I found Marco Arment’s comments on ATP that most people who say they can’t afford subscriptions really can and just don’t like change a little rich, coming from a guy who never bought the second-best of any product. Some of us have budgets, and being able to afford something doesn’t always mean you should. I refer you back to the fact that app subscriptions are generally single-user investments that are, frankly, selfish in nature. It’s not wrong for family members to spend money selfishly when they can justify it, but there’s a limit to it. Again, denying that basic aspect of life for people who care about how their spending affects others besides themselves is a bit jackastic.

I love Marco’s software and I hate the “bash Marco” bandwagon that rears its stupid ugly head so often, but he is a developer who has found that recurring revenue makes him the most money, and he already has plenty of money from past business ventures to buy whatever he wants without undue financial concern. Of course he’s going to have the viewpoint that he does.

Also, the assumption that what makes sense for one product makes sense for all/most/many products is silly. A lot of app developers will try subscriptions for things that it just makes no sense for (shopping lists, anyone?2). They’ll find out the hard way how dumb it is to try to apply that strategy to everything in sight when there is a race to the bottom in subscription pricing or when people just don’t subscribe. By the way, the tacit assumption that there can be a race to the bottom for up-front payments but not for subscriptions is pretty optimistic. It will happen, especially when every text editor in the universe goes this route.

I’ve often pushed back against the perception of the Apple community as people who will throw money at anything without thinking, but the tone adopted by many bloggers and podcasters on this topic really doesn’t help make my case. I’m happy for people that can take on more recurring bills voluntarily, especially for things their family can’t or won’t ever use, but not all of us are like that.

My point isn’t that subscriptions are all bad, although some of them are. All I’m asking for is some honesty from developers and from the people blogging and podcasting endlessly about how great app subscriptions are. A little willingness to admit that it’s really easy to spend other people’s money would go a long way toward earning my respect back. Framing someone else’s lack of desire to add yet another recurring payment to their lives as a moral failing is unfair, and frankly pretty idiotic.

  1. Design being not just how something looks, but also how it functions, of course… 
  2. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a professional shopper. All I need is something that can hold text and make a list.