From standalone utility to service

Ever since Smile Software introduced their new service for TextExpander, and switched to a subscription model for pricing, it seems that everyone in tech had an opinion about it. Bless you, Michael Tsai, for collecting the most interesting contributions.

Before getting to Tsai’s, the first opinion piece I read on the matter has been TextExpander goes Subscription Only by Joe Cieplinski. While I’m not a software developer, I share Joe’s perspective:

As a developer, I completely understand and support Smile’s decision. I’m sure there are a number of hard-core TextExpander junkies who use the software several times a day. For these folks, it should be a no-brainer to fork over $5 a month.

As a customer, it gets harder for me personally. I’ve been using TextExpander for many, many years. I’ve upgraded to the latest version up until now. But I’ve never been what you’d call a “power” user. Basically, everything I do with it I could probably pull off with the built-in text shortcuts in iOS and OS X. TextExpander does way more than that, obviously, but I personally don’t use those extra powerful abilities.

I understand Smile Software’s decision and wish the company all the best because I, too, offer a subscription-based product, my Vantage Point magazine. As a TextExpander user, again, I’m in a similar position as Joe’s. I’m probably an ever more casual user than he is. I have TextExpander only on my Mac. I don’t need it on iOS because I don’t write enough on my iPad or iPhone to have to resort to a tool such as TextExpander, and I also don’t need to synchronise the snippets I have accumulated on the Mac. There are several snippets that are simply a quick way to correctly type certain often-used words, like iPhone, iCloud, iTunes, MacBook Pro, and for those both iOS’s autocorrect and predictive keyboard are a surprisingly useful alternative. I write on the Mac, I write a lot, so TextExpander is a nice aid there. But still, I’m basically only using TextExpander’s core feature: text snippets that get automagically entered when triggered by the designated abbreviation. The fact that I’m still on version 4.3.6 should be telling enough: I’m happy with it as it is.

Michael Tsai makes a good point here: 

The new service makes it really easy to share snippets with other people, and it sounds like there are big plans for more team/collaborative features in future versions. This is really cool, but I have no personal interest in using those features. It seems like the product is being refocused for a different audience. There is essentially nothing new aside from the sharing.

I won’t be subscribing to TextExpander-as-a-service because I’m not interested in the extra features it would provide, and because for how I use TextExpander, investing about $50 per year is too much. Before you think What a cheapskate!, let me rephrase that: investing another $50 — in addition to what I already pay yearly (or monthly) for other services, and considering my low budget — is too much. 

Since I followed the debate, one theme I’ve often seen popping up is something that Joe Cieplinski has articulated best: 

Subscriptions are going to be the primary way we pay for productivity apps eventually. It’s going to happen. It has to happen. Upgrade pricing has been rejected by most consumers, and many businesses tend to prefer the predictable monthly costs of a subscription. As Adobe and Microsoft have shown, subscriptions may be a hard sell at first, but the long-term benefits to the health of products based on subscription are obvious. At least for pro apps.

I wouldn’t use the ‘pro’ versus ‘consumer’ (or ‘casual’) differentiator here, though. I’d use the phrase At least for apps where a subscription makes sense. Or For apps for which becoming a service makes sense. This is the differentiator for me. This is what has felt off for me since Smile announced the switch to a subscription-based service for TextExpander. I’m a long-time Mac user, I’m old school, I’ve been paying for software since it came in big boxes with a dozen floppies and hefty printed manuals inside. To me, TextExpander is a standalone utility. This switch to service feels forced, feels more like renting an app than paying for the kind of availability and convenience deployed on a large scale that’s provided by an entity like Spotify, if you know what I mean.

Tsai:

It is said that customers don’t like to pay for upgrades. I wonder how much of this is because Apple has conditioned them, through the App Store and its own app and OS updates, to expect all updates to be free.

I always try to educate people to pay for apps and upgrades. Subscriptions make me nervous and I tend to view them as something that is more beneficial to the provider than the final user. Mind you, there are many contexts where a subscription model makes sense: cloud services, music streaming, video/movie/TV streaming, and so on. But just as I think that the patronage model isn’t sustainable for a single user because such user cannot possibly support more than a few developers offering it, the same is going to be true should more developers follow Smile’s steps, refocussing their apps and utilities to work more like ‘services’ — maybe in the name of ‘social’ or ‘syncing’ features not all users may find useful or compelling. 

The various App Stores and the poisoning, infamous ‘race to the bottom’ in app pricing has certainly done a lot of harm to the perceived value of software. I still believe that people can be educated to pay premium prices for good-quality software. I don’t know if a subscription model could be an answer to the problem of paid upgrades — how can those people who are averse to paying for the occasional major update be keen on paying for an app on a monthly basis?

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