Monday, April 23, 2018

The Subscription Age

If history has taught us anything, it’s that quite a number of folks don’t like to pay outright for digital content and services. Ever since the dawn of widespread Internet adoption in the 90s, people have always figured out ways to get content for free. From early peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Napster and Kazaa, to the more modern BitTorrent, and questionable streaming services such as Kodi. But now there’s a new age upon us. It’s an age so convenient that we’re willing to forego alternative means and pony up! Yes indeed, it’s The Subscription Age.

Enter Subscriptions

By and large, more people nowadays are willing to pay for quality, consistent content than ever before. Whether it’s Apple Music for music, Netflix for video, and more, these services have successfully converted millions of people who otherwise would have obtained their content by other means (sometimes dubious).

And it’s not just about digital content. Subscriptions for material items or experiences are plentiful. It’s part of the growing trend. If you can think of a product, there’s likely a subscription for it. Meal prep? Blue Apron has you covered. Razors? Check out Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club. Women’s toiletries? You might want to see Lola’s offerings. Quality of these are hit-and-miss, but, you’re getting something material — something you own. Digital content, on the other hand…

Forever Renting

When it comes to digital content subscriptions, you don’t own any of the content and you are restricted in what you can do with it. For most, I think this trade off is understood and well worth the convenience and quality most of these services provide. I know for me, it mostly is. I don’t care so much about owning anymore, as much as I do access. We have become forever-renters.

Apps want ‘in’ on subscriptions

Being largely successful with music, video, and more, the subscription model is making progress in the App Store. Apple’s SVP of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, said the following on the subject in an interview with Gadgets 360 last May:

[…] I think for many developers, subscription model is a better way to, [sic] go than try to come up with a list of features, and different pricing for upgrade, versus for new customers. I am not saying it doesn’t have value for some developers but for most it doesn’t, so that’s the challenge. And if you look at the App Store it would take a lot of engineering to do that and so would be at the expense of other features we can deliver. […]

Phil took over the App Store in late 2015. He has done a great job, especially with the store’s redesign in iOS 11, in addition to purging a lot of outdated apps.

I agree with Phil here to a degree. Subscriptions seem like a good compromise to make things more worthwhile for developers and customers. It’s a big change from pricing individual versions of quality apps at $5, $10 or more. I think there’s quite a bit of psychology at play with this decision. When people are faced with paying more than $3-$4 for an app, there is some uncertainty there. They’re afraid of the initial investment. But by stark contrast, millions of dollars a year are spent on in-app purchases because they are typically $1, $2, $3 in small increments. They are usually impulse purchases intended to help with something immediate.

So, if I’m paying monthly or yearly for something, I should know what benefits I can expect. With Netflix or Apple Music, I know there will be a constant stream of new content rolling out on a regular basis. With an application, what’s the expectation? How do I know that an app I’m paying $5 a month for is going to consistently be updated with meaningful features that will be worth it in the long run? Of course, there are trusted and established developers out there moving to this model that aren’t so much the concern — it’s the ones that aren’t.

On another note, the subscription model really makes you take into account choice to a greater extent, especially for similar or competing apps. Here’s an example: right now, I’m paying $5 a month for the marvelous writing app Ulysses. It’s amazing for writing because it gets out of my way, and it offers a multitude of features that makes the $5 a month completely worth it. Now, have you heard about the Drafts app? It’s another popular writing app made by Agile Tortoise, and its purpose is to capture your ideas in the moment to be worked on later. If you’ve never used it, think of it as Apple’s Notes app on steroids. I myself have never been a user of Drafts, but I did check out the new version that was just released, Drafts 5.

With this release, Drafts has moved to a subscription model, like Ulysses. I downloaded Drafts 5 and played around with its base functionality, included with the free tier. It’s great! For more functionality and cosmetic changes, the monthly subscription is $1.99 – not much money. But, as I am already a subscriber of Ulysses, $2 a month for an additional writing app makes me pause. Not because I don’t see the value in Drafts, because I do. It’s easily worth the subscription price. It’s more about my workflow. There doesn’t seem to be a lot I can do in Drafts that I can’t already do in Ulysses.

If even one of these apps were a flat-fee, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. $10 or $20 now is a one-time purchase, versus $20 or more a year. I think another problem with this old way of buying apps is when new versions are released (like Drafts 5 or Tweetbot 4). Some people seem angered when they have an option to purchase a completely new version of an app. They feel invested enough in the app that and endless flurry of large updates are owed to them for their original investment on the current version. Maybe for these people, subscriptions present the opportunity to address this specific case, even if they are initially upset by the transition.

As I touched on about Drafts, an interesting note is that subscriptions have the opportunity to create a free tier or free trial mode. Ulysses offers a 14-day free trial upon launching the app for the first time. After that, you must subscribe for anything beyond read-only access. This means when you subscribe, you are getting the app in totality. Drafts takes a different approach. While Drafts has a free 7-day trial for their premium version, it also has basic functionality without any additional commitment. You only need to subscribe if you want advanced capabilities or app themes. This really takes care of the problem with outright purchasing and initial investment, but this is something needed for all apps, not just ones with subscriptions.

Subscription Overload

Overall, I don’t think subscriptions for apps are a bad thing. I’m just worried about the inevitable subscription overload as a whole. Not only on our minds, but also on our pocketbooks. Right now, I can’t even think of every service my wife and I have a subscription to, but I know there must be at least 10 of them. I don’t want 20 to 30 subscriptions to think about and manage. I’m not sure if there’s a better solution out there, but I think this model is worth a discussion.