Table of Contents
A theme which may be spotted throughout my posts so far is a dislike for subscriptions. However, I do have a few subscriptions, and I’ll discuss here why I have them, what the alternatives are, the lifetime subscriptions I have, and matters around sustainability when it comes to development.
I don’t mind paying a recurring fee for a service which has ongoing costs. I pay for stuff like web hosting, domain names, and email accounts for this reason. I can see where my money is going and why costs are needed to upkeep them. Granted, some services can cost nothing offering free plans, such as using WordPress.com for hosting a website or an email provider like ProtonMail, though I am aware these services are more entry-level, with the intention to encourage the user to become a paying customer. There are completely free services such as Gmail, though I question what else I am paying with if it is not my money, and I’ve seen Google described as an advertisement company rather than anything else.
Purchasing these services outright is a terrible business model as servers are needed to manage their upkeep, costing money for technicians as well as electrical and site costs. I cannot see any company ever offering a lifetime purchase for web hosting or email services, unless you’re paying with your data.
Self-hosting is not out of the option though, but from what I have read online, there seem to be mixed results for self-hosted email, and the fees are probably worth it to prevent the headache I’d may otherwise gain with issues I could encounter if I did it all by myself.
As previously discussed, I have a TIDAL account for music streaming. I don’t mind paying for platforms which generate regular content to consume. If I were to purchase a music album, that is all I am going to get. However, if I get new music every week, if not every day, I can see why an ongoing cost is required. In turn, I have subscriptions to Readly to read magazines and Netflix to watch TV and movies.
Much like music, magazines and video content can of course be individually purchased, but as someone who reads a plethora of magazines with just the price of three equalling one month’s subscription to Readly, where I pay £8, I actually see it as saving me money, and I watch Netflix almost every day with its numerous shows and films, always finding something new to watch.
However, we then come to the issue I see of many who dislike subscriptions for content platforms – the notion that you’re renting and not owning any of this.
I recently had a discussion with someone regarding this when they were enquiring into high quality audio platforms. They took out a trial of Qobuz, and found something out about themselves they had not realised: They only wanted to listen to about a dozen to two dozen albums. They worked out that for the monthly price of Qobuz, they could instead just purchase a CD, and in under two years be done with their collection.
For people like this, renting their music does make little sense. However, I am not that kind of person. I am someone who might be described like Ed Sheeran was recently, as an “obsessive music squirrel” consuming music “voraciously”. I listen to new music every day, and heavily focus on compiling playlists, now in their hundreds, of various different tracks from different artists. To pay outright for every track would cost me a fortune, and being able to browse music as I do would be impossible without being able to stream it. Furthermore, while I know many who would love to keep copies of their favourite magazines to refer back, I have always found myself to be someone who reads it once, maybe takes a few notes from what I’ve read, and then never picks it up again. But, if you are someone who does keep going back to old copies, then yes, a platform like Readly wouldn’t be right for you. Similarly, I don’t tend to rewatch television shows or movies, though there are of course a few exceptions – but if you do stick to a few select shows or films, then purchasing them outright would be the correct option.
During very low periods of my mental health, having tried all the free options I could find, I concluded I might be something needing more. From this, I subscribed to a few apps to try them out, but currently pay yearly for two.
The first is one I foresee me renewing year after year, that is DownDog – a service which provides a group of apps covering yoga, exercise and meditation all for one yearly price. With good timing from sales, I managed to get a subscription for just £20 a year for all three, and I cannot speak highly of the service. For that price, I am able to create fully customised yoga, exercise and meditation sessions, tweaking them to what I exactly want: length, difficulty, focus/intent and so on. A restorative yoga practice focusing on my shoulders for beginners done at a slow pace with lots of instruction to relaxing music? Yup. An exercise routine without any jumps for exactly ten minutes with ten second breaks between movements with little instructions with pop music playing in the background? Done. A mediation on self-esteem with silences lasting no more than thirty seconds? It’s yours. I could go on and on, but I do not mind paying for an app which, for me, is not only better than going to a yoga class or to the gym due to the experience being tweaked exactly to my liking, but also costs considerably less.
The other app is Finch, a mental health app focused on you setting and achieving small goals, as well as utilising writing as a therapy, through your care of a digital finch. The more you achieve or write about, the more gems you get to purchase things for your finch. Furthermore, your finch goes out on daily adventures and comes back with questions you have to answer, presenting life through a beginner’s mind – a tenant often mentioned in mindfulness. It also asks you about your mood throughout the day, and combines this with what you wrote about to summarise your good and bad days, and what may be correlative between them. When you log a low mood, it presents ‘first aid’, suggesting ideas on how to improve your mood, with mindfulness exercises, ranting away in a journal, breathing techniques or so on. The app also provides breathing exercises, soundscapes, a handful of exercises, stretches and yoga routines, and quizzes to analyse yourself. The app provides a lot, and I felt better paying for something developed by just two people, with a free option for those who really need it, but cannot pay for mental health help, thus I view this subscription a bit differently to others. £35 for a year was something I struggled to rationalise with, but I think it has greatly improved my mental health, pulling me out of my deep depression I was experiencing when I signed up.
I apologise for what has turned into two app reviews, but I thought I needed to justify why I was paying for these subscriptions and what they offer me compared to other apps I have declined!
I have lucked out a few times in my life, being able to access services for a one-off fee which are now subscription based. The most notable of these to me is Pocket Casts, a podcasting app I purchased very early on in its life cycle, and was grandfathered into when it became freemium with a premium tier. I love it a lot and use it every day, it syncs perfectly between my phone, iMac, and Windows PC, so I can easily pick up where I left off. It looks great, is easy to use, and I would recommend it to all, but I am unsure if would pay a yearly fee for it. Although it is only $12 a year, knowing me, I’d likely be looking into self hosting options…
Speaking of being grandfathered in after switches to subscription models, I was an early adopter of ReadItLater, purchasing it for, I think, around £5 as I had patchy WiFi and could not read online articles in my bedroom. I got an email one day announcing the app was being rebranded as Pocket and was now operating a freemium model, but as I had previously purchased ReadItlater, I was offered a 50% lifetime discount for subscribing to the premium plan – so in this case, I was not grandfathered in!
Lastly, I purchased a lifetime subscription to meditation app Calm when it was on a big sale, as it equated to two or three years of yearly subscriptions to the app, and I had already been a member for a year. Since I purchased the lifetime subscription, the app has grown considerably, adding two new daily mediation teachers as well as another involved with daily movement, plus numerous more sleep stories and music playlists. I’m pleasantly satisfied with the purchase as I continue to use it daily years on, justifying the one-off purchase.
I understand the argument that software delivery has changed immensely over the past two decades, software was once sold on floppy disks and then CDs in big boxes in stores after all. Whenever there were major version changes, a new edition of the software was released. For example, you had various editions of Microsoft Office: 95, 97, 2000, XP, 2003, 2007 and so on. Some software is still released this way today, such as Things and Scrivener.
However, such software shares one thing in common: a high cost. These days with the proliferation of ‘free’ software (paying with data rather than money), as well as the sale of mobile apps tending to be around the $5 mark, it can be difficult to convince customers to part ways with, say, $50, every few years for an updated version of the same software. How to be sustainable in this new world has been problematic.
As such, the alternative to this new landscape has been subscriptions. Developers get to continue working on and improving a piece of software for many years to come, not needing to continually chase new customers but care for the ones they already have, and don’t have to focus on new, perhaps less desirable, software just to keep the money coming in. Spaces.do wrote a piece on their website about why they have chosen a subscription based model for their software, which contends that subscriptions can be fine if done correctly – by not taking advantage of the customer, charging around $15 for a yearly subscription, covering all devices logged into the same Apple ID. I think the piece makes some good points, and I should point out they also offer a generous free plan, making the decision to pay a yearly premium fee feel more as an offering to support the developers than to gain access to a functional program (though, of course, paying for premium does unlock more features, including syncing between devices).
The developers of Agenda present a different model, whereby a basic free tier is available, and then a €35 fee unlocks all the premium features of the app already implemented, and then any added for the next twelve months. If the customer doesn’t renew, they get to keep those premium features they gained over that time period, but not any new features added after that twelve months. If the customer sees a new upcoming feature they want, they can then pay another €35 for that and any new updates added over twelve months again. In the comments sections, one of the developers equated this magazine subscriptions, stating you get to keep what you paid for, but nothing new afterwards, unless you pay again. I think this has likely been the fairest model for all I’ve encountered, as there are various applications I want premium for due to one or two features, but decide against it as I know it’s not worth paying for year after year. But a one-off payment to access all the current premium features and get to keep them afterwards? I would probably do it, and this model encourages me to pay again and again by enticing me with possibly other features I would be willing to pay for.
There are also other ways to monetise to make development more sustainable. Notion is free with some restrictions for personal use, and charges fees for teams and businesses (as well as power personal users). Joplin and Obsidian are completely free, unless you use their syncing services. I read somewhere in my time that GoodNotes keep their one-off fee as they can rely on a steady stream of new customers every year: the new crop of students heading off to university and needing an app to take notes with in class on their shiny new iPads. Nonetheless, not all pieces of software apply to these models of course.
Some have argued the future lies with bundling subscriptions together to make them more palatable. I actually was a BETA tester for SetApp, and had free access to it for around six months as a result. Of course, I loved having access to loads of Mac apps I’d otherwise have to individually pay for, but I worried I may become reliant on them, and what if I could not pay the subscription for some reason? I’d lose access to them. The Qobuz argument essentially then went through my head: SetApp would cost over $100 a year – how many apps could I buy in that time and then have them to keep forever? It may be worth the value if you work out which apps you do want, how much it would cost you to purchase otherwise (or pay a yearly subscription for, maybe you’ll actually end up saving money?), and how long you want to use them – but it wasn’t worth it for me. When the BETA testing period ended, I chose not to sign up. Considering it was released in 2017, and it’s 2022 as I write this, I think I made the right decision not spending over $500 to rent software I could otherwise purchase outright!
I think my bottom line largely aligns with that of Spaces.do: subscriptions leave a sour taste in my mouth when I feel the company simply wants to milk me for all I have. The software I use and like being held hostage behind a paywall unless I pay up yearly or monthly to access it. It’s why I at least appreciate freemium models which allow some use and access, with just the perks taken away when a subscription ends.
I also don’t mind paying subscriptions for services where there are obvious ongoing costs, and do mind when I can’t see them – me using my password manager doesn’t cost the developers anything in upkeep costs. I don’t mind when the costs seem reasonable and more as an offering to support the developers or to offset a free tier for those who cannot pay, as well as to pay for bonus features which aren’t required to make the application functional.
My main issue is simple: I’m not made of money. If everything turns subscription based, I won’t be able to afford them all. I’ve been lucky with purchasing most of my applications on sales, in bundles or with student discounts, or buying in early while cheap before prices rise and the shift to subscriptions come in. I’m resourceful, I try to self host as much as I can to lower costs, as well as research to uncover random FOSS apps, finding plenty of hidden gems after hours of searching. Some services I use are like Joplin and Obsidian, offering paid syncing services which are easy to setup. Instead, I try to sync stuff by myself, taking time and effort, in order to save money.
There needs to be a sensible middle ground where customers are not bound to endless amounts of subscriptions just to use their apps, and where developers can make a living from their work. I think this is why I am more favourable to the argument put forward by Agenda – offer a free tier which is accessible and functional, and then offer perks (and/or syncing services) at a reasonable price, and letting customers keep what they have paid for after the subscription ends. I don’t think there will ever be a perfect solution, but trying to be fair for all involved is a good place to start.