Another Great App Went Subscription Only and Everything is Terrible

By Alex Cranz on at

I blame Adobe for this. Ulysses, one of the best writing tools available right now, is going subscription only. If you previously purchased Ulysses for Mac or iOS (it works seamlessly across Macs, iPhones, and iPads) you are now going to have to pony up £4.49 a month or £36 a year in order to enjoy any new features the development team might roll out for the software.

And again, I blame Adobe for this, because it taught software developers that they can put their clients over a barrel—royally screwing early adopters by having them pay repeatedly for product.

Back in 2013 Adobe moved its most valuable software, including Photoshop, Illustrator, and Premiere, to a subscription-only model. If you want to use the industry standard software Adobe creates you have to throw down a monthly fee. It’s been a sore point for many a computer user who still remembers the halcyon days when purchasing software meant you, essentially, owned it.

Since then many apps have moved to this new model—often promising cool updates as a “reward” for being a subscriber. Quicken, Autodesk, Adobe, and even more niche companies now like Ulysses, are moving towards this model and there’s no sign of them stopping any time soon.

Ulysses is developed by a small publisher called Soulmen, and it’s co-founder, Max Seelman, took to Medium on Friday to defend his company’s decision. “Our users expect a continuously evolving high quality product — and subscription is the only way we can truly deliver on that expectation,” he said in his post.

Seelman went on to explain how software development has shifted dramatically since Soulmen first launched Ulysses.

Software purchases used to be very different from how they are today. Until not too long ago, you would purchase an application and get a physical copy on a bunch of floppies (or later a CD). The thing you got — that was it. No patches, no updates. Developers had to put forward an extreme amount of attention to get everything right, because once an app was out, development had to be done.

Seelman then noted that software development dramatically shifted as internet speeds improved. With companies able to produce patches that not only resolved minor issues at launch, but also introduced new features.

At first, these resulted in new features being added on-the-fly, but it quickly evolved into issuing more and more substantial patches — until today, where most v1.0s are mere sketches of a future product.

Essentially, Seelman argues, software is now in constant development and pricing hasn’t kept up with this new cycle.

Which, okay, it makes sense! If software is constantly getting features that normally would have warranted a new version and additional money than the company absolutely has the right to ask for more cash.

The company is offering, for a limited time, a discount to older users, and if those user happened to purchase the software within the last year than they’ll also received up to 12 months of free usage under the new payment model. Soulmen has also made it clear that the old version of the app available in the iOS and Mac app stores will be available for use and updated to work with iOS 11 and High Sierra. After that you’re out of luck.

What’s frustrating about this is how shifting to these new forms of payment are great for the developer and fine for new users, but suck, a lot, for old users. I know, because I’ve been using Ulysses for the better part of six years. It’s a piece of software I’m so attached to I’ve name-checked it when people ask why I don’t switch to Windows or Android for my daily work machines. The announcement of a move to subscription-based payment popped up as soon as I opened the app on my computer this morning and, annoyed, I took to Twitter to bask in the irritation of other users.

Ulysses isn’t going to be the last app forced to make this decision. As consumers demand more and more from “minor” updates software developers will need to find a way to make profit. They can try to tightly manage their business and continue with the old model, demanding money only when a new and truly outstanding version appears, or they can go the Ulysses route, which many companies, including Adobe, have done before.

It’s proven effective, even as subscription fees balloon on users’ credit cards and leave them irritated and underwhelmed. Adobe, Autodesk and Quicken are all huge and required apps for their respective industries. They can afford to ask for money each month, but if Ulysses doesn’t provide cool new features with every update, that $40 a year will quickly strike users as pointless and many will run back to Scrivener or some other non-subscription based app.

At the very least Ulysses could have taken a note from the book of Plex. That software suite went from completely free to a subscription based model and users were...not pleased. So Plex offered a lifetime membership. Essentially you pay out the nose once and never pay again. As someone who uses the app every day that was a no brainer for me. I dropped my wad of cash and never looked back, and I didn’t have to love at yet another subscription fee on my credit card statement either.

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