Subscriptions for apps — the uneasy deal

Ever since the idea of a subscription model for apps started circulating, it has always felt wrong to me. Perhaps ‘wrong’ is too strong a term. How can I say this in other words? I’ve always felt a kind of mismatch, as if ‘subscription model’ is the square peg, and ‘app’ is the round hole. In my life, the things I have usually subscribed to are services and magazines. Services include, obviously, essential utilities (electricity, gas, water) and de facto utilities like Internet connection and mobile phone service. But more specific to the matter at hand, by services I mean things like Spotify, or subscribing to a bookmarking service like Pinboard, etc. And by magazines, I generally mean print magazines, though the example could also be extended to digital publications. 

With services and magazines, the subscription option has always made sense to me. Music or video streaming services generally offer quite the advantageous deal for a customer: for reasonable prices, they provide an ample choice of content to be consumed (apologies for the use of these trite terms). For print magazines that can typically be purchased at a newsstand, a subscription can be a handy option not because it’s particularly cheaper, but because it gives customers the convenience of not missing any issues of the publication they love. They don’t need to remember to rush to the newsstand to get next week’s or next month’s issue, nor they have to hunt for an issue when a newsstand has sold them all. (In the 1980s, my parents subscribed me to a couple of obscure computer magazines I loved because tracking down their issues had become a nightmare).

Maybe I’m being old-school here, but I always considered software applications to be products you buy and that’s it. Apart from an initial period when I was young and foolish and obtained pirated versions of apps and games I was interested in (or kept using shareware ignoring its reminders to pay for it), I then quickly understood the value of software, and started paying for it, happily, because no matter how immaterial software is, it is a product, it is a tool, and you pay for it just like you pay for the bread you eat, the books you want to read, the utensils you need in your home, and so on. Since my early conversion, since I understood the rightness of it, I’ve always paid for software, whether it was the $19.95 shareware utility or the almost $900 of QuarkXPress 3 back in the early 1990s (I needed it for work, and poured all my savings into it at the time). Back then, software (especially Mac software) was generally more expensive, paid updates were rather normal and not cause for minor online uproars like today, and, if I remember well, it was rare for a single developer to be able to support themselves with their shareware. There were big software companies, and small software companies. A lot of applications coming from single developers were the fruit of their spare time; they charged what they thought was fair; most of the time it was really fair; and I guess that, with what they earned, they were able to keep cultivating their tech-related hobby.

Like every other product I’ve ever purchased, I’ve always enjoyed the ‘no strings attached’ aspect of the transaction. I pay for the product, I use the product, and if I’m satisfied with it I’ll choose that manufacturer / producer / author / artist / developer again, recommend them to other people, and that’s that. Restricting the context to software: is there a new, paid version of an application I love and enjoy? I’ll pay for it, gladly. Does said application evolve in ways I don’t particularly like? I’ll keep using the old version until I can, and then maybe one day I’ll try a similar application from another developer if it seems to be focused on the same features I’m after. No strings attached.

It’s the same with every other product you can think of. I get my coffee at that place over there because I enjoy how they do it, or the exotic selection of coffees they offer. I have a favourite bakery. I have favourite shops I go to, to buy the stuff I like. If one day my favourite bakery changed its business model and offered only a subscription service where I pay a monthly fee and every Monday I receive enough bread to last the week, that would feel awkward. (I know, there’s always someone who would consider this arrangement very convenient, but bear with me here.) If, on top of that, the baker told me that by subscribing, I’d help him support his business and his family and he would have the time to develop new and exciting recipes to make bread and pastries, I would probably return a polite smile and leave the shop, thinking that — while there’s nothing inherently wrong in the proposition — it does sound really awkward. I would also have the feeling the baker is having issues running his business and wants me to participate in solving them. 

This is an approximate picture of how the subscription model applied to apps makes me feel in general.

Subscriptions demand a mutual dependence: obviously developers present such dependence as a mutually beneficial pact. But the fact is, there is now a dependence where before there was none. And that makes me uncomfortable. Because an uncomfortable atmosphere is created: I’m not simply buying your product, I become regularly involved in your support. I become part of your plan to make a living through the development of a software application. And I agree with iA when — in their musings about the next version of iA Writer — they write [emphasis mine]:

The elephant in the room is: Who will pay for this? Will there be a paid upgrade? Do we ask for subscriptions? Talking to other devs you can get tough guy advice like: 

People always complain, they don’t understand technology, you need to live, you have tons of fans, you lose some, win others, who cares?”

Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets. Yes, we need to live. But that’s our problem. Explaining that dev costs and comparing software to coffee, sandwiches or cars is not convincing. The only ones that will feel you are friends, family and other indie devs. Friends don’t count money. Customers do. To own, we pay more. To rent, we pay less. Strangers don’t genuinely care about our wellbeing — they compare prices and pick the best value. Subscriptions are tough. They are not bad or impossible, but they need to meet real life expectations:

a) Renting is less expensive than buying

b) Expensive products hold longer than cheap products

c) Buying vs renting should be a fair choice


I become involved in someone else’s business problem, hopefully as the continued solution to such problem. And, in a sense, I’m not even a customer anymore, I become a subscriber, a patron. I’m not sure I want this kind of involvement. This may sound cynical and all, but it also has to do with something I already mentioned — the unsustainability of the subscription model for apps if applied on a large scale:

And my early guess is that — if abused — [subscription is] going to be an option that has the potential of driving customers away. Not necessarily cheapskates or people who don’t understand the costs of app development, but also people who (like me) usually pay for apps but are on a budget and can’t afford supporting every app they like. And people who simply can’t justify a recurring subscription for apps they love to use, but don’t use frequently enough.

I believe the right way to approach customers with a subscription model for apps is to offer such subscription as an option, not as the sole way to sell rent your product. People should be given the choice to be just customers, no strings attached; or supporters (subscribers) if they really love the product, if they’re fans of the developers, and want to be more actively involved in solving the sustainability problem of someone else’s business.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!