8 & X

Tech Life

Next things first

It’s like standing on a train station platform: the iPhone 8 is the last train coming in from the past. The iPhone X is the first train going out to the future. Or, if you prefer another image, it’s a relay race: the iPhone 8 arrives to the designated point, then passes the baton to the iPhone X. We’re witnessing the transition, the rite of passage. It’s a feeling I’ve been having since the Apple event keynote ended the other day, and I started thinking about next year and the iPhone naming scheme. What are they going to do? Introduce an iPhone 9 when they’ve already introduced the iPhone Ten? Introduce an iPhone 11? ‘Nine’ feels out of place — and sequence — while ’11’ just feels weird to me, I can’t exactly say why. Even when there’s a tag line — “Turning iPhone to 11” — that practically writes itself, though it sounds trite after iOS 11.

In presenting the iPhone X, Apple has insisted on the concept that this iPhone is the future, so my cautious prediction for next year is that we’ll see a new iPhone, that it will have the same design as the iPhone X, and come in two sizes: big and smaller; the two models will be called just “iPhone” and “iPhone Plus”. And, just like this year, if people prefer to stick with the older design for some more time, the 8 and 8 Plus will still be available at slightly reduced prices. If Apple solves the notch problem (more on this in a moment), these two iPhones won’t have it. Otherwise they’ll still feature the notch, and it will go away the year after.

This is just a ‘gut prediction’ and I may end up being horribly wrong, but this is the scenario that has been playing in my head these days, and it makes some sense to me.

The notch

Let’s talk about that notch right away. First from a hardware standpoint, then from a software standpoint. In case you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, what’s been called the ‘notch’ in the ongoing debate is this part of the iPhone X:

The notch

It’s the section at the top of the device containing all the array of front-facing cameras and sensors. The part that prevents the iPhone X from being ‘all screen’, despite what Apple writes at the beginning of the iPhone X page as you scroll down to have the usual feature overview.

The tech in the notch

From a hardware perspective, the cameras and sensors in that part of the iPhone couldn’t have realistically been placed anywhere else, so what do you do if you want an edge-to-edge display? You either have the display reach them, surround them; or you maintain a minimum of bezel on the ‘front’ and ‘chin’ of the phone, and leave them out of the display area.

Here are two different approaches from the competition. In the Essential Phone, the display reaches and surrounds the front camera:

Essential phone
Image: Android Central

While Samsung, in their Galaxy S8 line, prefer to have an edge-to-edge display wrapping the sides of the phone, while leaving bezels on the top and bottom that are thin enough to maintain an overall sleek design, but thick enough to leave the array of front camera, sensors, microphone, etc., outside the display:

Samsung Galaxy S8
Image: Phone Arena

Well, I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I actually prefer these two design choices over what Apple has done with the iPhone X. Like with the notch on the iPhone X, my eye is immediately attracted by the Essential Phone’s front camera, ‘breaking’ the display’s continuity there in the middle. Yet I think that it’s small enough to get enough out of the way aesthetically, and not be a hindrance to the phone’s user interface. More information can be displayed both to the left and right of the camera. To be fair, Apple had too much technology to cram there to achieve a similar, less visually annoying result. Then why not opt for a Samsung-inspired approach? I have to agree with Mike Rundle here: The S8 family of phones with the Infinity edge screen simply look more futuristic than the iPhone X.

Reshuffling the gestures

The lack of Home button has triggered a general reshuffling of a series of common gestures iPhone users were familiar with since iOS 6 and iOS 7.

  • Now you ‘go Home’ by swiping up from the bottom of the screen.
  • Which is exactly like the gesture that was used to trigger Control Centre up to now.
  • So how do you invoke Control Centre on the iPhone X? By swiping down from the top. 
  • But not from anywhere on the top: from the top right corner.
  • Because if you swipe down from the top left corner you pull down Notification Centre.

Note that these revised gestures apply only to the iPhone X. Since the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus still sport a Home button, on these models (I assume) the gestures are the same we’ve been familiar with so far.

Two things, mostly, puzzle me:

1. The primary function of Control Centre has always been to act as a quick shortcut to some of the most used controls. Invoking it by swiping up from the bottom of the display is a very intuitive, fast, and handy gesture. Moreover, it can be easily carried out with one hand no matter how big the iPhone is. It works as well and as reliably on the 4-inch display of the iPhone SE as it does on the 5.5-inch display of the ‘Plus’ iPhones. By changing it to a swipe down from the top right corner of the display, it has become a gesture that can comfortably be accomplished only with two hands (unless you have very big hands or you have enough dexterity to slide the iPhone down a bit and then swipe down with your thumb, but I contend it’s still slower than just swiping up from the bottom). Just look at the Design and Display subsection of the iPhone X page on Apple’s website; scroll down a bit until you reach the heading Intuitive gestures make it easy to get around and select the Control Center animation; you’ll see the gesture is carried out with two hands.

2. If the iPhone X marks Apple’s next direction, and the future iPhones won’t have a Home button, and the new gesture to enter the springboard once Face ID gives access is essentially Swipe up to open, then I don’t get why deprecate the Slide to unlock gesture, present since the beginning and removed in iOS 10 in favour of Press Home to open. I know that Press Home to open is going to stay a while longer given that all the other iPhone models in production (SE, 6s/6s+, 7/7+, 8/8+) still have a Home button, but this doesn’t look like having a clear, forward-thinking plan, gesture-wise. More like a mixture of arbitrariness (the change from iOS 9 to iOS 10 with regard to Slide to unlock and the gestures to navigate Today View, Notification Centre, bringing up the camera from the lock screen, etc.), and compromise (the reshuffling of said gestures on iOS 11 on the iPhone X is a direct consequence of changes and compromises in the hardware design).

Owning’ the notch, and design challenges for developers

In the Human Interface Guidelines for the iPhone X, Apple explicitly recommends developers to avoid trying to hide the notch. It’s curious, yes? Because the effect when you mask it with a black background makes for a beautiful detail, and the iPhone X gains a lot in elegance. Since the OLED screen returns true blacks, the notch positively disappears.
Invisible notch

I don’t really subscribe to Vlad Savov’s theory that “Apple is turning a design quirk into the iPhone X’s defining feature”: 

Instead of trying to design its way around the notch — which could have been done by distributing the iPhone X sensors more widely in a slimmer, full-width top bezel — Apple chose to have it there.

And:

Apple took a design limitation and decided to lean into it: as with the Essential Phone’s signature camera cutout, the iPhone X sensor array is cut out from the screen deliberately and purposefully.

And:

Jony Ive, the longtime chief of Apple design, introduced the iPhone X by saying Apple’s goal has always been to have a phone that’s all screen and nothing else. If you peruse the company’s patent applications, you’ll find a litany of technological explorations of “hidden” sensor tech (such as a camera) that sits behind the screen. Apple is even reported to have pushed back iPhone X production by a month in its desperate efforts to integrate Touch ID under the device’s display. Ive is perfectly sincere when expressing Apple’s ultimate design goal, however technical limitations are clearly forcing his team to make a compromise. So what Apple chose to do was lean into that compromise and turn it into a branding asset.

Well, of course Apple has to present a confident attitude towards the notch and the design statement it represents. Jonathan Ive would perhaps use the term ‘unapologetic’ to describe the presence of that notch. Embracing compromises can be bold all you want, but doesn’t change the fact that they’re compromises. All UI examples I’ve seen so far of apps in landscape mode on the iPhone X keep emphasising one thing: the notch is a quirk, and an annoying one at that. It is a design stopgap I believe Apple can’t wait to get rid of. I still think that in two iterations — maybe as soon as one — this class of iPhone will truly be ‘all screen’. 

The iPhone X also brings new challenges to iOS developers, and not just because of the notch. Check what Marco Arment, among others, has been saying on Twitter: 

  • iPhone X breaks most of Overcast’s UI. I’m going to have to significantly redesign major portions of the app. [Source]
  • The X’s biggest UI-design problem for me isn’t the notch — it’s the home indicator and the rounded screen corners. [Source]
  • iPhone UIs basically can’t use the four corners anymore. That’s not a small deal. We’re going to have to add a lot of margins everywhere. [Source]
  • Will be challenging to have the same UI scale between the iPhone SE, 6/7/8, Plus, and X. SE owners will get the worst UIs forced on them. [Source]
  • It was already a big pain to support landscape on iPhones — now it’s even worse. I bet most apps just drop iPhone landscape support. [Source]
  • Adopting UIs for the X isn’t an unreasonable technical burden. The API gives us the layout metrics. It’s a major design challenge. [Source]

At this point I’m really hoping, for the sake of everybody involved, that Apple’s plan for the next years is to settle on iPhones with the design aesthetic of the iPhone X, but without the notch, and available at different sizes. A sort of hardware design uniformity we’re now seeing with the iPad line. This would in turn bring more uniformity on the software front, both with regard to user interaction/gestures, and with regard to designing iOS app interfaces that work consistently for all iPhones. (This is entering the realm of daydreaming, but can you imagine an iPhone line of truly ‘all screen’ notch-less models, offered in 4-inch, 4.7-inch and 5.5/5.8-inch variants? Boring, perhaps, but quite elegant and consistent if you ask me.) 

What about the iPhone 8?

IPhone 8

Design-wise, the iPhone 8 is the culmination of what Apple introduced with the iPhone 6. I for one loved the glass back of the iPhone 4 — which I still consider the best design in ten years of iPhone history — and seeing it coming back with the iPhone 8 is just great. This glass is certainly more robust than what Apple could offer back in 2010: the Design subsection of the iPhone 8 page on Apple’s website states that: The front and back feature custom glass with a 50 percent deeper strengthening layer. A new steel substructure and a stronger, aerospace‑grade 7000 Series aluminum band provide additional reinforcement. And an oleophobic coating lets you easily wipe off smudges and fingerprints.

Another detail I personally like a lot is the progressive disappearance of those ungainly ‘antenna lines’ on the back of the iPhone that first appeared with the iPhone 6:

Antenna lines iPhone6s 7 8
From top to bottom: iPhone 6s, iPhone 7, iPhone 8

It’s a pity that returning to a glass back design means there isn’t a colour choice as cool as what I consider iPhone 7’s matte black (I do look forward to a Product RED iPhone 8, though), but — and this is a first for me — I find the gold option in the iPhone 8 unusually attractive. It is certainly due to the glass on the back, but I find it to have a really beautiful shine and to look more refined and less ostentatious than the gold of previous iPhones.

Overall, I have fewer things to say about the iPhone 8, and not because it’s less interesting to me. As I said at the beginning, the iPhone 8 represents tradition, the ‘up to now’, while the iPhone X represents the next step, the ‘from now on’ — and it’s obvious that the X is getting more attention than the 8. Its design is polarising, and Face ID is a new authentication technology that has started another lively debate among the most privacy-conscious.

I don’t have much to say about the iPhone 8 because I think it’s simply a great phone. There’s nothing I don’t like about it. While I love the iPhone 5 / 5S / SE form factor and design, and was looking into upgrading from my current iPhone 5 to an iPhone SE, what the iPhone 8 offers today performance-wise seems a more future-proof choice. Especially for someone like me who doesn’t change his iPhone every two years. Chances are my next iPhone has to last me at least 3 to 4 years, and getting an iPhone SE now means purchasing a phone with a CPU that is already two generations behind. I’m not a fan of big phones, but at this point I’m willing to compromise on size to acquire a more powerful iPhone. 

So why the iPhone 8 and not the X?

For starters, the iPhone X’s design has left me more underwhelmed than I expected. And this has nothing to do with the rumours and leaks that correctly anticipated most of the design and features. The notch, and what it does to the upper part of the display, bothers me. It’s simply something I cannot ignore. For me it’s more or less a deal-breaker detail as the keyboard in the new MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

Then there’s the size. Physically it’s not as big as an iPhone 6/6s/7/8 Plus, but it’s bigger than a 4.7-inch iPhone, which is my limit size for handling a phone somewhat comfortably.

I’m not particularly interested in the dual-camera system and related features either. When it comes to photography, I’m pretty much a traditionalist, and still enjoy using film cameras plus an older Nikon DSLR which gives me pretty satisfactory results (including, you know, real bokeh). The camera in the regular iPhone 8 is more than enough for what I need in a phone.

You may think that I’m choosing the iPhone 8 over the iPhone X because of Face ID, but I’m actually okay with it. In my head, a fingerprint and a face are just biometrics, and the way the iPhone stores them is practically equivalent. I may have been criticising Apple more in recent times, but I do trust the company on this front, and I do believe they wouldn’t have debuted Face ID and had it replace Touch ID in the iPhone X if they hadn’t considered the technology ready to ship. Also, Apple’s famous stance on customer privacy is such that I really wouldn’t mind using and trusting Face ID.

Last but not least, price is the ultimate deal-breaker for me. Here in Spain, the 64 GB iPhone X will cost €1,159, while the 256 GB model will cost €1,329. I’m about to invest roughly €1,600 on a new Mac. I just can’t justify prices in the €1,100–1,300 range for a phone, not even an iPhone. I would think about such an investment if iPhones had similar upgrade cycles as Macs, but they don’t. Furthermore, since I believe the iPhone X is a transitional model, design-wise, I’m not going to spend that much money on what feels like a temporary design (I was about to use the term ‘beta’, but maybe it’s too harsh.)

In choosing the iPhone 8, what I’d miss most of the X are probably the OLED display and Face ID, but those aren’t must-have features for me, either; certainly not worth spending €350 more to have them (I think those €350 would be better spent on an Apple Watch, for example; by adding €50 you could even get a base iPad 5). Overall, I consider the iPhone X an interesting, but transitional and expensive device. I would rather invest on it later on, when the design settles, the UI quirks are ironed out, and it can really be an ‘all screen’ iPhone.

→ Why talk of a $1000 iPhone is not overblown

Handpicked

Jan Dawson, in an article titled Why Talk of a $1000 iPhone is Overblown:

There’s been a lot of talk about Apple releasing a $1,000 iPhone next week, and a lot of pushback from financial analysts in particular on the idea that people would actually buy such a thing. […] But the reality is that talking about a phone in these terms is a bit old-fashioned at this point regardless of the actual price, especially in a US context.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but what I took away from Dawson’s piece is that, since the iPhone is more and more frequently offered through instalment plans and leasing, the fact that the upcoming iPhone X will be likely priced at $1000 or more doesn’t really matter; that it doesn’t have the same impact it would have if paid upfront in full. 

I think this is nonsense.

I think $1000 for a phone is a stupidly high and unjustified price. You can talk about the great technology and that an iPhone is a powerful computer in your pocket all you want. I still think that $1000 — and the rumours talk about this as being the entry price — is an insanely high premium to pay for an iPhone. And since I live in Europe, that premium, once converted to euros and inflated by additional taxes, will be even higher.

Sure, monthly instalments make things more tolerable, but that’s hardly a justification for putting up with this kind of prices. By that logic, who cares if Apple next introduces a $2000 phone? You just pay a bit more every month. Except expenses are expenses, no matter how you frame them. I know, it’s a bit old-fashioned as a concept, but still.

It’s also not uncommon that instalment plans involve interest rates. So that $1000 iPhone X, which may be the €1200 iPhone X in Europe, may end up costing you €1500 after 2 years. It. Is. Insane.

Oh, but the value. Again, I cautiously agree: you get value from Apple products over the long term. This is especially true for Macs (I’m still using a 2009 MacBook Pro that has always worked very well until recently), and to a certain extent for iPads. But iPhones are another story. Speaking hypothetically, a €1200 iPhone should last you at least 4–5 years to be a valuable investment. We all know that iPhones don’t have that kind of upgrade cycle.

So really any survey that asks about a thousand dollar iPhone is asking the wrong question: the real question is whether customers are willing to pay a little extra (or perhaps none at all) for a great new phone. […]

This is the framing you can expect to see from Apple next week: affordable-looking monthly pricing, with the new phone probably coming in at around $40, or $8–10 more than the iPhone 7 Plus. And that’s going to be a lot more palatable than the “$1000 iPhone” headlines will lead people to believe. 

The real questions are: Is $1000 a ridiculous price to ask for a phone? And: Is it worth spending $1000 on an iPhone? My answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively. The fact that there are people willing to spend that sum, whether as a one-off payment or in instalments, doesn’t justify turning these price tiers into the new normal. And frankly I’m appalled that a lot of Apple-oriented tech pundits are okay with it. As Adam Banks succinctly said on Twitter, I do get a bit fed up with tech folk on here assuming $1000 is small change to everyone or if you pay monthly it’s not real money.

The sad thing is, in a few hours the new iPhones will be unveiled, there will be aaahs and ooohs, everyone will be talking about the new features, the new technologies, the better cameras, the infrared sensors, the powerful CPU, and so on and so forth, and this kind of criticism towards the iPhone’s price will be buried under an avalanche of articles and reviews talking about how awesome the iPhone X is.

But price matters. And $1000 or more is simply too much, no matter how you look at it. Talking about this isn’t overblown. I think it’s an aspect we should insist on more frequently. The message Apple should get is Hey, you’re going too far now, and not Here, take my money no matter how much!

(Yeah, wishful thinking.)

→ The Home button is fading away

Handpicked

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple is preparing three new iPhones for debut next month. One of the models, a new high-end device, packs in enough changes to make it one of the biggest iPhone updates in the product’s decade-long history. With a crisper screen that takes up nearly the entire front, Apple has tested the complete removal of the home button — even a digital one — in favor of new gesture controls for tasks like going to the main app grid and opening multitasking, according to the people and the images. 

[…]

Across the bottom of the screen there’s a thin, software bar in lieu of the home button. A user can drag it up to the middle of the screen to open the phone. When inside an app, a similar gesture starts multitasking. From here, users can continue to flick upwards to close the app and go back to the home screen. An animation in testing sucks the app back into its icon. The multitasking interface has been redesigned to appear like a series of standalone cards that can be swiped through, versus the stack of cards on current iPhones, the images show. 

I really don’t like that the Home button is becoming a software feature instead of remaining a hardware control. I’m sure that Apple’s famously tight integration between hardware and software will create a reliable user experience in general, but software controls can become unresponsive and unreliable in case something goes wrong software-wise (maybe due to a misbehaving third-party app). 

This leaving behind the Home button as a physical, mechanical control also strikes me as a step back with regard to accessibility. When I first handled the iPhone 7 in an Apple Store, I was pretty underwhelmed by the new force-touch Home button, no matter the intensity setting. It felt weak and weird. If the new deluxe iPhone even lacks a hardware area to use as a button and goes all-in with the software, I’d really like to know what people with sight disabilities think of this new direction.

Of course, a phone without a physical Home button is nothing new. My favourite implementation has to be Palm’s: the ‘Gesture area’ on the Palm Pre phone family was well designed (see this bit from CES 2009, where Matías Duarte is demoing the Pre’s UI and gestures) and maintains a great reliability and responsiveness. In a few instances where my Palm Pre 2 had a software hiccup, I was still able to go back and quit the app that was acting up, and retain control of the smartphone. I think that an iPhone with a similar gesture area (Apple could have called it Touch Area) would have been more interesting and user friendly; but hey, apparently ‘big, bezel-less display’ is the priority now.

I’m also curious to know the reasoning behind introducing a new user interaction model on the new deluxe iPhone, while presumably keeping the old one on the other ‘regular’ iPhones that will be introduced along with it in a few days. We’ll have:

  • The new deluxe iPhone with these new software gestures (and probably the new facial recognition feature instead of Touch ID).
  • The iPhone 7, 7s, 7 Plus, and 7s Plus with the force-touch Home button and Touch ID.
  • The iPhone SE with a physical Home button, Touch ID, but without 3D Touch.

I guess it’s going to be an interesting transition period.

→ Dropbox will drop support for older operating systems

Handpicked

Michael E. Cohen, at TidBITS:

Dropbox has begun notifying users of its service to inform them that as of 16 January 2018 it will automatically sign out any computers running certain older operating systems. The Mac systems include those running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard through 10.8 Mountain Lion; Windows Vista systems will also lose desktop support on that date. Not that it matters much, but you won’t be able to download or install the Dropbox desktop app on those systems after 3 November 2017.

Although the vast majority of Mac users have updated their Macs to more-recent versions of OS X and macOS, some continue to run older versions. Many tend to be folk who, like me, have kept a Snow Leopard system operating in order to run PowerPC-based applications; Snow Leopard was the last Mac OS that supported Rosetta, the PowerPC emulator that enabled Intel-based Macs to run such apps.

Then there are folks who, while having a more up-to-date desktop Mac, perhaps keep using an older laptop that’s still working great and can take the occasional rough handling when out and about. Or vice-versa, their older desktop Mac is still useful, but their preferred machine to keep updated is the laptop. These people may need Dropbox to keep in sync two or more Macs of very different vintages. Then there are people like me, who still put even older Macs to good use, and would like to keep relying on services like Dropbox for basic syncing and file exchange. As time passes, however, Dropbox doesn’t seem to be a suitable solution for such needs.

If you’re among these people, my suggestion is to switch to Box. Maybe their pricing plans are nothing to write home about, but for me Box’s killer feature is its WebDAV support. As I’ve reported on my System Folder blog, this means you can connect to your Box storage ‘drive’ even with very old versions of Mac OS X (WebDAV’s support is built into Mac OS X since version 10.0); if you use a WebDAV client like Goliath, you can connect to Box even under Mac OS 9 and earlier (down to Mac OS 8.1!). Read my afore-linked System Folder article for more information.

Subscriptions for apps — the uneasy deal

Software

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.