Subscription based software licences can make sense, but…

How long has it been now? Could it be about eight years that we see more and more subscription based software pop up? Is it worth the money, paying those yearly fees? Or has it been a rip-off as many people thought when the first developers (I remember Adobe, which do you?) switched to them with a nice marketing peptalk to go with them?

Today, roughly speaking there are three licensing models:

  • A permanent licence, whereby you buy the right to use the app for as long as you like. In this model, the updates are usually free with upgrades sold at a lower fee. That’s how it was before subscriptions started to make the rounds.
  • The pure subscription model. This is what most software developers who charge a subscription fee opt for. You don’t buy a licence with updates. You buy a licence to use the software for one year. During that year, all the minor (updates) and major (upgrades) improvements and new features the developer programs are available to you.
  • The mixed model. This is the model a small number of developers use. You buy a licence that subscribes you to all of the new and better features the dev manages to churn out during a year. If you decide not to renew your subscription when the subscription expires, you are entitled to keep using the app with all its improvements and novelties that were added during that year.

Most developers who use the pure subscription model claim you are better off as they can continue improving their product and adding new functionality without the uncertainty of a number of users not upgrading. They also often claim they will add more better stuff to their apps than with the permanent licence model.

These claims are true for a small number of developers. The Ulysses markdown app, for example, has seen more major improvements and additions (what we would call upgrades in the permanent model) than it did when it wasn’t subscription based. Adobe seems to have cranked up the number of releases of its apps as well. For those two, however, there are numerous others who haven’t.

The frequency of updating and upgrading an app isn’t necessarily less with a permanent licence, either. Take iA Writer. Its upgrades are yearly, almost on the clock. iA Writer supported tables long before Ulysses. It now has wikilinks with backlinks as an unofficial promise for an update. Yet, its developers haven’t switched their licensing model.

An example of the latter category is Audirvana Studio, the audiophile music player for the Mac. While it still is the one of the best of its niche, the release of new features has been low. Even the release of fixes has been slow, with the speed of the library loading and especially the cover images of CDs not having improved much from the performance a year ago.

Another, quite infamous example is Bear, the markdown note taking app. Again, Bear is an excellent app and I use it on a daily basis myself, but even with the low yearly subscription fee, its developer team is ridiculously slow at improving its functionality. In Bear’s case, the dev team is very small, but many users of the app would happily pay a bit more and see faster turnaround on some much needed improvements.

As it turns out, and I don’t think it’s a surprise, the mixed model is the best of the three. The Agenda app is an example. I paid for one year and got a lot of new features that I am still using legally, even as I let the subscription expire. In Agenda’s case, as in Bear’s, the development of new and improved functionality seems to have stalled to a trickle with few of the features asked for by its user community to have been implemented.

When I look back on the 28 years that I have been reviewing desktop software, I can only reach this conclusion: apps that shine and have a large and enthusiastic user base, rarely change their subscription model. New devs will often go for the subscription model, in my opinion mainly because the customer isn’t complaining anymore, and they see it as a quicker way to build a generous income stream. However, a good deal of them don’t deliver the updates and upgrades subscribers expect.

In the end the user pays twice. Once with its subscription fee, and once with the disappointment of the state of development of their app after a year.