When is software too expensive? App pricing and in-app subscription

I ran across this podcast episode where developers talked about the behind-the-scenes activities that goes into app development. I watched curiously at the backlash of app pricing when it comes to OmniFocus (some say it’s just too expensive) and the trend to in-app subscription. It was fascinating to listen to Max Seelemann talk about the struggles of app developers and what went behind the decision to switch to in-app subscription.

As a customer, we’re always price-sensitive when we get charged for something. Sometimes we get discouraged when we just bought an app 6 months ago and a new version was just released. But we’re just right outside the edge of the free upgrade time window. Another app might be a little too expensive for your taste and you’re pondering about going with a cheaper alternative. Or we’re faced with another app where they’ve switched over to the in-app subscription model.

It’s interesting to hear about the decision for Ulysses to go from the one-time purchase to the in-app subscription model.

We’re still resisting the subscription model for some of our apps. I’m just grateful there’s a nice mix of one-time purchases and subscription models.

It was interesting to listen to this episode and hear why some apps such as DevonThink and OmniFocus are priced high and why others have switched to the subscription model. Listen and judge for yourself when you buy that next app. Yeah, I know the topic of one-time purchase vs. subscription is still controversial and a hard pill to swallow. Adobe, Setapp web sites, and Ulysses are going to the subscription model to sustain itself.

I think there was an interesting comment in the podcast about updating apps. If the developer does a major upgrade (version 1.0 to version 2.0), we’ll have to wait longer while they save up enough changes to warrant a major paid upgrade. However, the subscription model allows the developer to quickly add features and reiterate on a constant basis. I think I’d like to see new features sooner instead of waiting for a new major upgrade every couple of years.


This is a tough topic to work through and as an entrepreneur and developer, I can say I spend a lot of time thinking through these business models. And my conclusion?

It’s messy and there’s no one answer.

I found an article on MacStories about another app that uses the subscription model. But there’s a twist here. I found this paragraph interesting…

Agenda’s pricing model is worth mentioning too because it is somewhat unique. Agenda’s core features are free. An In-App-Purchase unlocks premium features including the creation of calendar events, saved searches, and copying and exporting of Markdown. The In-App Purchase also comes with any new features introduced for the twelve months following the purchase. If you don’t pay again at the end of twelve months, the app remains functional, you’ll get bug fixes, and any unlocked features will still work, but you won’t get new features that are introduced.

Most in-app subscriptions will still give you access to your documents if you decide not to renew the subscription. You just won’t be able to edit or create new documents. This is what we get with today’s app offerings. This different take on subscriptions caught my attention.

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So Agenda effectively gets a Freemium model with paid upgrades? There may be some interesting viability there.

The challenge is that it’s not just about the developer. I wrote elsewhere that within the space of 2 months 6 apps I use went subscription. This caused me to dump all of them, even though there were some great apps. Ulysses were particularly awful in giving people only a day or so to decide before they removed the special offer for existing users. This really narked a lot of people. Sometimes it’s not the subscription alone that is the issue, but that when it is introduced it always seems to penalise existing users.

I think people are doing a whole lot more thinking about software as it starts to eat into monthly budgets. I am now much more ruthless in my approach and have unsubscribed from most software bundles lists. I’m constantly looking to reduce my usage to a bare minimum.

As a side note I moved to Android after 10 years on iPhone. The removal of apps that required a subscription also removed the need for an iPhone as most subscriptions where to sync data. I’m amazed that on Android most apps are a quarter the cost of iOS apps.

I personally don’t like the subscription model as it leaves the user with nothing. If I purchase a licence for an application, I can use it until I need to upgrade. With a subscription I lose access when I stop paying, there is no control. I may need data from it a year later and would then need to re-subscribe.

Most apps with a subscription model will let you view your documents in ready-only model and print your documents.You won’t “lose” access to your existing documents. One feature that I want from any app is the ability to export your data in a variety of formats. Foe example, Ulysses exports out into rich text file (RTF), text, epub, HTML, PDF, and Markdown.

When we try out new apps in demo mode, we can edit all we want and use it to see if it fits our workflow. After the trial period runs out, the app won’t lock us out. It will just go into read-only mode. We can still see our data. We just can’t edit it anymore until we pay for the app.

I don’t use Adobe InDesign all year round. If I find a period where I need it, I’ll subscribe for a month or two and then cancel. I can go to Home Depot and rent a Jackhammer or a cement mixer. I don’t use them enough to need one in my garage all the time. I just need it for one week and I gladly return it back to Home Depot when the project is done. I think this is a model that is hard to digest because we’re so used to a one time purchase upfront. The one-time app purchase doesn’t guarantee access forever because we might upgrade the operating system and we have to pay to upgrade to a new compatible version.

I can be tight with my wallet as well. But I’m wary of developers who can’t support themselves with their sales model. They might not be around for long because it’s not cost-effective enough to keep updating or provide support to an existing version of the app. Will this company be around in three years if they sell at rock-bottom prices?

I returned to iPhone X after a stint with Samsung Galaxy that lasted almost a year. It was fine, but I found the overall software quality to be much lower than with iOS (both primary and secondary platform developers).

Both platforms have a lot of cruft, and a few solid winners. But the overall cost of software doesn’t matter to me as long as it justifies itself (I get reasonable ROI out of the software).

I don’t like it for everything. But it makes sense for some things. As a developer, I get it. I don’t work for free, I don’t expect others to either.

That said it is all trade offs. I pay for a grandfathered Ulysses subscription, but I don’t pay for a Bear one (in fact I use apple notes instead of free Bear).

I pay a Jetbrains (Integrated Develompment Environment) subscription instead of for the “one-and-done” version as I like continual updates for software that, in essence, helps me replicate money.

But I don’t pay for aubscriptions for “hobby” apps. I’d rather pay one-time and upgrade to the next major revision when the time comes.

That said, I don’t like the “pay for each platform” option either. It cost me $30 to buy into the Things ecosystem for iOS. If I like it, I think Things for Mac is like another $40. Which is fine, but do I prefer $70 every few years, or $3-5 per month. Would this fix the “glacial update cycle” issue I’ve heard about Things development? :: shrug ::

I’ve been pretty happy with the balance OmniGroup has maintained over the years. I like the move to free apps, with IAP to unlock “Pro” features. But I expect them to at least experiment with a subscription model by 2019.

It begs the question, does my GtD suite warrant a subscription model, or do I switch to something free? I have to admit, the annual subscription for Todoist premium wasn’t horrible; just turns out I didn’t need it.

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This is not quite true. When I left Ulysses I hit just this problem. It exported all but it’s own bespoke Markdown XL specific items. This proved quite a pain. I discovered that Markdown XL is a proprietary as .docx.

This model is adapted more well with Panaorama X. You only pay the months you use and can load up your wallet so to speak when you want. The software notifies when you used it and you pay for usage.

I like the idea of Setapp, if only it contained all I need. alas it does not.

I find android more “smart” as a smartphone. iPhone wins because of it’s simplicity, but doesn’t really do anything smart, like sending a text based on location, or turning off my bluetooth/wifi if it is not connected. Or turning on my wifi and connecting to a specific network when it detects a specific location. I suppose the big win for me is more the Note 8’s pen to create handwritten notes using the always on screen on the fly. I also like that I can attach a USB and move data to and from the phone.

What I did was have Ulysses do a preview of the selected sheets, select all, copy, switch to another app, paste into another app, then save. A Keyboard Maestro hotkey helped speed up the process.

Whilst I appreciate that, it does show that Ulysses is not a simple export your data and you’re done. Exporting from .docx is actually easier.