Are subscription-based apps the future, or will they implode?

“The decision of the popular writing app Ulysses to switch from a one-off purchase to a monthly or annual subscription has attracted a great deal of criticism,” Ben Lovejoy writes for 9to5Mac. “The company says that anyone who bought the app when it first launched has now received nine major updates at no cost, and that this isn’t sustainable.”

“Of course, Ullysses isn’t the only app to have switched to a subscription model – nor the only company to come under fire for doing so. The highest-profile example is Adobe,” Lovejoy writes. “We’re seeing the same trend everywhere. Right now, you can still buy individual TV shows and movies, but iTunes popularized the idea of renting them instead, and companies like Netflix take things further with a fixed monthly subscription for all-you-can-eat streaming access. And, of course, Apple Music now gives us the option of renting, rather than owning, our music.”

“The idea of renting rather than owning isn’t without its benefits, of course. Developers get a steady stream of income, which enables them to keep updating apps and adding new features, while users get access at a more affordable up-front cost,” Lovejoy writes. “I can’t help feeling that the whole subscription model is at some point going to implode. Some people will simply refuse to get on board at all – like those who say they are done with Ulysses – while others will eventually reach breaking point. One or two low-cost subscription apps, well, ok, maybe. But what happens when it’s ten? Twenty? At some point, people are going to say enough is enough. Do you agree?”

Read much more – and participate in the poll “What’s your view of subscription apps?” – here.

MacDailyNews Take: What do you think? Are subscriptions here to stay or an unsustainable fad or a bit of both?

How to import TextExpander snippets into TypeIt4Me – April 6, 2016
When should software be a subscription service? – April 6, 2016


  1. The sad reality is that money makes the world go round so one way or another you need to be able to earn money from an app you created whether it be by advertising, subscription or in app purchases. If the app can’t support itself financially then the developer will stop supporting it when they run out of money.

    1. That brings up another good point.

      Once the developers have you tied to their subscription model and hold you data hostage, what incentive do the developers have to add any truly innovative features? They’ve already got you.

      At that point it’s incremental changes (and maybe incremental improvements, but maybe not) and bug fixes.

      Major improvements get people to buy the new version of software.

      Let’s keep developers motivated.

      1. Maybe instead of subscription, they have an in app purchase for when you want the latest features. The only question is whether or not Apple supports that as a model.

  2. I agree with the logic presented – one or two, fine, but it would quickly become untenable if it were the norm for every single app. Bundling them, given the variety and specialization of apps, would utterly eliminate choice as smaller developers got left out in the cold. The same goes for streaming services – eventually we are going to end up with something that looks an awful lot like the cable tv we thought we were leaving behind (As in: Sorry! Netflix is no longer available as a stand alone subscription! Please choose from one of our ridiculously overpriced bundles!). History repeats, and repeats, and repeats. Can you imagine if the telcos or tech companies controlled media to that extent? Kinda where we are headed. :/

  3. As I’ve said here before, I consider virtually all subscription software ransomware. If you don’t keep paying the monthly fee then you lose access to YOUR files. (Maybe I should start calling it “protectionware”. It is more analogous to a classic protection racket. Don’t pay the monthly fee to the racketeers and your property gets destroyed.)

    With purchase software as long as you want to keep that era computer going and the app on it, you can get access to your data. This is absolutely not the case with subscription software. Stop paying: Software stops working. Software stops working: Can’t access files.

    I know someone who has an old Mac IIci running the last version of HyperCard. (He also has a couple other Macs of the same era stored in a closet too.) His little company uses it for a small database. It works *perfectly* for his business. He’s been using it since the 90s. HyperCard no longer is a product anywhere, but he can still access everything he needs on it about 20 years after he did a last, major update to it. You could not do that with subscription software. (Yes. Yes. He could spend the time, money, and effort to bring his data set forward to a much more modern data base, but since it’s doing 100% [not 95% or 99%] of what he needs, why should he?)

    1. I can identify with your HyperCard guy. I too have old Macs stashed away to run applications which have long since faded away and will not run on Intel Macs, but which I use to support hardware projects which were designed and documented using those applications decades ago. If that had been subscription software, I would either still be paying for software that I rarely use, or else it would have stopped working altogether – either way would mean that it was impractical for me to continue to support my old projects.

      Over the years I have bought a lot of expensive software which wasn’t really an essential item for my business, but I had the money available and it offered a useful solution at the time, but I knew that it was a one-off expense and could budget accordingly. With subscription models, I would only subscribe for software which I knew I would use pretty well every day and there’s not much around where that would be true.

      I can see why developers need regular income and I can also see why it’s reasonable to expect power users to pay a reasonable amount to keep using applications, but there’s also a middle ground which many of us occupy. We are happy to pay a fair price for applications we use, but also don’t want to have to pay full commercial monthly rates for applications which we only use occasionally.

      It could well be that apps will polarise into pro and enthusiast level apps, much in the way that Photoshop and Pixelmator have, but while I’ve purchased a number of versions of Photoshop since Photoshop 2.0, I would never pay a monthly on-going fee to use it when PixelMator does pretty well everything I need for a very attractive price. Alternatively there might be ways to pay per day when you use certain apps, but I’d still be wary of creating important files in proprietary formats in case that application ceased to exist in the future and I could no longer access them.

  4. False dichotomy. Users buying software would buy major upgrades if they saw fit to- not buy once and get updates forever.

    I would rather buy and own.

    The problem is the model of giving away apps for damn new free. Not many years ago buying a Mac game was $10-20 on a disc without ads and you owned it. now everybody wants to milk your wallet monthly or annually, data mine you for more $ and insert ads for even more $. They call it monetization.

    Apparently nobody just wants to write and sell software anymore.

    Netflix is not an app- it is a service. Facebook is a service. Google is a service. Hulu is a service. All of these may have apps, but at their core are services. Renting a Word Processor is just fucking greed.

    1. You never really own though. You only license, and truth be told, this is largely due to piracy. I’ve worked for companies that downright told me they would not pay for software. Adobe was being eaten alive by Photoshop piracy. Once they instituted their payment plans, that all changed. Mostly what I hate about Adobe now is how hard it is to manage your subscriptions and the subscriptions for everyone in a company.

      It is one big pain in the ass, and they expect to be able to contact everyone in the company using the software. So to prevent the user from being bombarded by Adobe spam, I have to create an email address, then create an alias for each copy of the software I install. Total pain in the butt.

      1. That, among other reasons like price, are why I’ve been using Affinity Photo and Designer as well as Readdle’s PDF Expert (Pixelmator is another excellent bit of software). They’re good reasons to not use Adobe’s subscription products. I’m getting very weary of all of these subscription models nickel and diming and adding to an absurd monthly usury. Add up what you spend on Microsoft 365, Adobe stuff, Netflix, Apple’s offerings, HBO, Showtime, etc ad naseum. I know, sometimes these companies have you by the pants and you’re stuck with their offerings. But I think at some point this nickel and diming will implode. I’m at the point where I just refuse to engage in this and try my best to go with a “license” model and JMO, FWIW, etc

    2. Agree totally with your comments about games, most games would try to milk you for money and if otherwise be a sandbag to those willing to pay hundreds for a game.
      So sad that it seems to work exceptionally well for them and there are less and less playable games on the market.

    3. I think that the point is people traditionally buy applications for computers up front and then optionally upgrade them by paying an upgrade fee. With apps on IOS, you also buy the app once, but there is no simple method to allow developers to charge existing users for significant upgrades, which means that the business model for developers becomes distorted and there is less incentive to keep spending money on further refining the app.

  5. I think it will prove unsustainable as well – especially at the rental prices being charged. Adobe is the one exception, they actually offer a heck of a lot of very good software for a very reasonable, that is, a sustainable, monthly subscription. But all of the others? Not so much. Some of the professional graphics and animation software developers who’s products I use offer both—perpetual licenses and rentals. I don’t see why all developers can’t also do the same. It gives people a choice. Rentals work better for some while perpetual licenses work better for others.

    1. Adobe is the exception? Depends on whose budget your looking at it from. Unless your making good money from using their products, you may be able to afford it, but for others not so much.

  6. I own Adobe CS6.
    Though the features will never be improved, it doesn’t cost me an arm and a leg each month to use it. I paid full price for Photoshop way back when and loyally upgraded every version or two (and upgrade to Creative Suite, too). Haven’t sent Adobe a dime since they when subscription. Their loss.

    I use Eagle (PCB layout and schematic capture) v7.7. Autodesk bought them out and now it’s subscription. Again, I would have paid to upgrade but I’m not willing to pay $50/month (especially for hobbyist level software). When I outgrow Eagle 7.6 I will learn an open-source layout program like Kicad.

    Do you see the pattern developing here?

    Truth in advertising: I do pay $5/mo to rent Fusion 360. That’s a fair price (though it was a special price to get people hooked). When my two year subscription I will look for something else — $35/mo isn’t worth it for a program I don’t use professionally and use, maybe, once a week.

    1. Personally I wish Affinity would get their Publisher App out the door. Based Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo, I believe it will bring credible competition to Adobe.

  7. There are lots of apps I like on the Apple App Store for Mac and iOS. I worry about committing to them though. I always wonder if this is one guy in his bedroom or a staff of people or what. If I commit to using Ulysses or Bear or this new diary app I like called Lifecraft, how do I know the developer won’t go out of business. So I wind up sticking with Microsoft Word.

    Hopefully subscriptions will allow them to maintain their apps indefinitely.

    We as consumers are going to have to learn to budget these things. I.e. no more than $100 or so dollars per month on software and media. So maybe I get the Wall Street Journal, HULU, LifeCraft, Netflix, and Bear and that’s it. I know that if you don’t watch them, the number of subscriptions can creep up and when you add them up you can find you’re spending over $200 per month easily.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.