App Subscriptions Are a Good Thing

I get attached to the apps I use. I do all my photo editing in Photoshop and Lightroom, I use Airmail for email, I listen to music with Spotify, I read feeds with Inoreader and Reeder, I Tweet using Tweetbot, and most importantly, for writing I use Ulysses.

Ulysses has just announced they’re switching from a once-off payment model to an ongoing monthly subscription. Rather than pay $44.99 for the Mac app and $24.99 for the iOS app, users have to pay $4.99 a month going forward (although there are discounts for existing customers, students, and year-long subscribers). While the Ulysses developers explain their rationale in a long, well reasoned Medium post, the reaction was predictable. How dare a company try to make money with subscriptions!

The thing is, while subscriptions are obviously good for developers—who doesn’t like ongoing, predictable income?—they’re also good for consumers like you and me. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

Good Businesses Stay in Business

The businesses that stand the test of time are the ones that actually work as a business. Each year they sell enough of whatever they’re selling to turn a profit and stay in the game. Children don’t go hungry, mortgages get paid, the owner even takes an occasional holiday. It doesn’t matter how great the product is if they can’t pay their bills.

With apps, this means that every year enough new customers have to buy the app so that the developers can feed their kids, stay off the streets, and go to Disneyland. It doesn’t matter if they sold a million copies last year, if no one buys their app this year, they’re going to go bankrupt or have to sell their company.

This chart from Ulysses shows how there’s a sales spike around every new version that makes the company profitable but that most of the time, sales don’t cover ongoing costs.

I don’t like it when apps I use go bust or sell up. That means they stop developing their app, and in time, I’ll have to stop using it. And I hate changing apps. There’s a learning curve and I’ve chosen the apps I use for a reason: they fit my workflow.

With a subscription pricing model, developers don’t have to worry about where the money to keep the lights on is coming from. As long as they don’t drive away all their existing customers, they can keep their app going indefinitely. And we can keep using it.

Developers Can Focus On Existing Customers

When a developer uses a subscription pricing model, they don’t need to chase new customers every year. Instead, they can focus on keeping existing customers happy. They can spend time adding the new features that people using the app want, rather than working on things to try and attract new users. And, hopefully, customer service gets prioritized as well.

If you’re an existing customer, this is great for you. Your voice matters more.

Subscriptions Are Often a Good Value

The rise of $0.99 apps skewed are perspective on what the tools we use and things we enjoy should really cost. The fact people weren’t willing to pay $10 for a game is why “freemium” games (which some people sink hundreds of dollars into) are now the norm on phones and tablets. Even big companies are getting in on the action and adding microtransactions to their AAA desktop and console titles.

The vast majority of subscriptions, however, are pretty good value for what you get. The best professional image editing software in the world for $9.99 a month? Jackpot! That’s actually cheaper than Photoshop’s old $700 upfront cost, if you were a user that paid $700 every time a new version came out. This is the future I’ve been begging for.

Subscriptions Are Cheaper in the Short Term

To get anything close to the variety of tracks I listen to on Spotify without piracy, I would have had to spend tens of thousands of dollars. Before Photoshop went subscription, there is no way I’d have been able to pony up a few hundred or even thousand dollars to buy it in one go. Now my music library is huge and I’ve got access to the same tools as professional design studios.

While Ulysses isn’t the most expensive app, the full package still costs $70. If you’re tight on cash and not sure how much you really need the app, that’s still quite a lot to drop. Subscribing for a month or two is a great way to try the app without spending a ton of money up front—and if you like it, you can keep it.

Subscribe When You Need To

One of the best things about subscription services is that you can often just subscribe when you need them. Want Photoshop for a three month project? Well sign up, and then after three months when you no longer need it, cancel your subscription. You can do this as often as you need—again, that’s much cheaper than spending the old $700 price just for three months of usage.

It’s the same with apps like Ulysses. If you’re writing a dissertation or book and want a great app for it, sign up for Ulysses for as long as you need. If you’re only writing the one dissertation, Ulysses will cost you a lot less for a few months than if you’d bought it outright. And if you’re using it all the time, it’s probably worth subscribing to long-term.

In Conclusion, Subscriptions Suck

Look, I get it. It sucks to have to pay every month for something you already paid once for. The cost of a few different subscriptions adds up fast, which sucks. Getting locked out of an app because your card expired sucks. There’s lots to hate about subscriptions.

But apps going belly up sucks, too. So subscriptions, while not exactly fun, can be a good thing. I love that subscription apps aren’t going to vanish because the developer went bankrupt, that my relationship with the company isn’t one and done, and that they are often good, accessible, anf flexible values. Give subscription apps a chance.

Harry Guinness writes occasionally when he’s not busy skiing, sailing, partying, lifting weights, or otherwise dodging responsibility. His main areas of interest are himself, gin, and crazy people with interesting stories to tell. When people won’t pay him to write ill-thought-out opinion pieces, he covers photography, technology, and culture. You can follow him on Twitter.