August 2017
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Thoughts on the App Subscription Model


This article has been in my drafts for the last few months. Since that first draft, multiple applications I use daily have gone to the subscription model, a pain since I’ve had to rewrite sections over multiple times, but a plus as I get to add new perspective.

A few months ago, 1Password has released a new subscription service, allowing their same new features that they introduced with 1Password for families to be utilized, for just 3 dollars a month. I’m always curious to read comments on how this kind of thing is received, excited to see the comments, but what I found sadly was what I see all the time these days

Usually it’s rehashes of these kind of comments:

“The company is getting greedy!”

“I pay $10 dollars a month for office! How is this possibly worth $3!”

Agilebits is a company of 51 employees if this is currently accurate. Microsoft is a company that employs 118,000 employees as of the end of FY2015, and is so large that if someone says they live in Redmond, Washington, it's almost a given they work for Microsoft.

Yes, Office + OneDrive for 10/month can been seen as a much larger value position then something like 1Password, however the resources and manpower allowing that scaling are massively different between the two.

As of 2016, Microsoft has 60 million active customers on just the business tier of Office 365, while Agilebits has not publicly disclosed their numbers, I imagine it’s not on this same threshold.

Their support staff and even their founder were in the comment threads on multiple news sites discussing the changes. They were explaining the move, how the programs came to be, to dispel myths about “dropping support” and many other items I have yet to see myself from another company of this size.

The program my not be worth 3/month to you and that's absolutely fine! Nobody says you have to get it yourself, the market will deem how it does in the long term. Outside of these news comments, I have found the majority of the news about it positive, from my twitter feed, to Federico's post about it on MacStories.

Personally, I find it to be within that realm with the polish and extra features included. Dashlane is the other I would find in this ballpark, and Dashlane is actually now more expensive per year at 40/year than 1Password is now.

I know I am coming to this from significant privilege, I am at a point in my life and career that I can pick up many of these subscriptions without even a 2nd thought. Many of these subscriptions will never be going on sale, with the main point of them allowing the company to be in a much better long term financial position.

Think of it this way, a sale for the one time upgrade is a one time cost.

If you discount a subscription, that money the party receives is discounted in forever.

That doesn’t preclude the possibility of extra benefits on occasion being a promotion though. For example, I switched up my 1Password for families during a Canada Day promotion. I pay the same price but now I have 10 accounts and 2gb storage for each one, vs a normal sub that gives you 5 accounts and 1gb storage respectively.

This same argument has come up over and over again, especially recently when Day One went to a subscription model.

Day One, a journaling application for iOS and macOS, recently moved to a premium subscription model vs one off payments for their applications.

If you already own the applications there's not that much of a difference right now, as all your current features are lifetime grandfathered in. New features added however will be behind the paywall of 25/year for current app owners and 35/year for new purchasers.

I can see the frustration if you just purchased an application and the switched to a new business model. It's hard for the dev too, since no matter when they make the call someone is going to get burned.

Funny enough, while picking up this draft again, Ulysses the app I use to do all my writing in switched to a subscription model. They have coded it so depending on your purchase date, you get up to 18 months free use of the app on the new subscription model, as well as you'll still have the version you've used up to this point forever.

Personally I'd love it if more apps picked up Sketch's licensing model, where you keep the app forever after your period expires but you stop getting updates. Sadly, any app that wants to go through Apples Mac App Store can't go through this model, as there is no way to allow blocking of updates after a time in the store. That would have to be added in functionality Apple would provide, otherwise you're out of luck, especially if you are on iOS where there is no other option

I guess theoretically, one could keep a TestFlight list of active buyers and remove people from a build, but that would be a MASSIVE headache and probably against the Terms of Services of TestFlight.

Since Sketch fully controls distribution they are able to make their model work this way.

One line I really liked discussing Ulysses’s changing business model came from Shawn Blanc over at The Sweet Setup:

“They are turning their current customers into their primary customers”

By switching they are able to focus on the users who are their primary customers, who use it heavily for work and would be the ideal users to shape the progress and feature set that The Soulmen would add to the app in the future.

Not every app can consider subscriptions; for example I don’t think I’ll be seeing fart apps on the subscription model (please no…). There is a limit for users, as I’d say only the truly essential applications for people will become subscriptions. For me that’s the following:

Each one makes my life easier to the point that I find the cost with subscriptions worthwhile. These will be different for everyone depending on your preferences, but I see a similar path for most people. The nice thing about subscriptions is you get to now decide if an app is truly worth its cost to you, as free trials are now an option with them. Like an app? Great, go ahead and subscribe. Don’t? Thats ok, keep on searching.

Time will tell if this is the best move for all these applications, but so far it seems to be a success!

Note: if subscriptions to several applications individually is concerning to you, you may be interested in a service like Setapp, which I’ve discussed here before, where you pay one fee and get 70+, may be worth a look!

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