Canon versus Nikon. Dell versus HP. Microsoft versus Apple. Tech companies have been battling over their piece of the pie for years, that isn't new. But recently, tech and non-tech companies alike have started changing up their business models so that instead of simply selling you a device and calling it a day, companies would rather sell you an ongoing subscription for the product you want, complete with a recurring monthly payment. Welcome to the Service Wars.
From a business standpoint, this strategy makes a lot of sense because instead of a company getting paid when you buy a product and then wondering when your money might grace its ledgers again, businesses are using subscription service models to turn you into a walking revenue stream. It’s no surprise that Apple’s next act appears to be focussed on selling you services to use on the iPhone which you’re just not replacing as often.
The beauty for companies is that once you sign you up, they’ve got you. It’s one thing not to buy another product from a specific company, but it’s another thing entirely to cancel one of your countless subscriptions, delete your account (and maybe migrate your data), and switch to another platform (assuming that’s even an option). After all, it’s just £10 a month, right? That’s nothing.
This evolution has spawned an endless variety of monthly subscription services looking to sell you crates filled with your favourite nerdy swag, foreign confections from around the world, dental hygiene supplies and basically anything else you can imagine. It’s a subscription service feeding frenzy out there. But it’s the tech companies that have perfected this model, as they have transformed things that once seemed like everyday pleasures into services that feel more like a tax on your pay. It's rubbish. When you combine these services with monthly bills for important things like housing, utilities and Internet, suddenly, a big chunk of the disposable income you think you have vanishes into the ether at the beginning of the month.
So here’s a look at some of the biggest battles being waged in the services wars and the companies behind them. Be still your trembling wallet.
The streaming video shootout
Image: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
Featuring Netflix, Now TV, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube (and YouTube TV), Disney+, whatever the hell WarnerMedia is cooking up and countless others.
For many, streaming video apps are the most identifiable gladiators in the service wars. Netflix was the first video streaming service that made it big, transitioning from a DVD rental program to a household name.
It was a good idea, so Netflix was joined by other upstarts like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. Meanwhile, companies like PlayStation, Sling TV and YouTube thought they would take a bite out of the U.S. cable companies by launching over-the-top TV services so that cord-cutters could still watch live sports and other cable programming.
This emboldened even more companies to join the fray, which is about when things started going downhill fast. Now media companies are fighting over content, locking down the biggest shows to a specific service and forcing people to shell out regular monthly fees because there’s only one service with the new Star Trek show. The reality of cord-cutting isn’t one flat monthly subscription that has it all. It adds up across several platforms.
So even if you signed up for Now TV to watch Game of Thrones, you’re still paying for access to Big Little Lies, Riviera and Chernobyl. And with content being fragmented and siloed across multiple services, it sort of feels like having one streaming video app isn’t enough. From the long reign of monopolistic cable companies, we’ve entered a world where video content is spread so thin, that people are returning to piracy to get access to what they want. Congratulations, we’ve hit the other end of the cable hellscape spectrum, and now there’s too much choice.
There’s no such thing as too much music
Featuring Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Amazon Music, Google Play Music and YouTube Music.
Who doesn’t like music? And with the number of streaming music apps out there, it’s never been easier to seek out your favourite tune. Spotify and Pandora both have tiers of service that are available for free, while most paid subs charge a month fee that’s about the same as buying one CD a month, which seems pretty reasonable.
The dark side of all this is that if you ever stop paying for the sub, all that music goes away, potentially including any playlists, song ratings or other things you may have saved. That makes it feel like you are locked into paying for a music subscription for the rest of your life and, in the end, you’ll have nothing left to pass down like the stacks of tapes, records and CDs that so many people cherish.
All the news that’s fit to paywall
Image: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
Featuring The Times and The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, Wired, and Apple News.
Surfing the Internet is a generally pretty low-cost affair. Sure, you still have to pay an ISP to get access, but once you’re travelling around all those tubes, there’s typically not a ton of fees associated with browsing. The trade-off for this is you see lots of ads.
Ads on the Internet have not proven as profitable as companies would like. And over the last few years, the number of online news sites with content gated behind paywalls has increased. After five or maybe ten free stories, well that’s it, you’re done until the end of the month unless you fork out money for a subscription.
Keeping the cloud afloat with every monthly payment
Featuring iCloud, Dropbox, Amazon and Google.
Anytime people ask what’s the best way to protect your files, the answer is always the same. Back that shit up. Online storage options from Amazon, Dropbox, Google, Apple and others are often the simplest solution.
But at the same time, the process of safeguarding your data and storing it offsite like a smart digital archivist means shelling out yet another small sum every month. Yes, depending on how much room you need, that sum may be as little as 79p a month, but it all adds up.
Paying home security cams to so you can use your device
Featuring Nest, August, and SimpliSafe.
Over the past few years, DIY home security systems have gotten relatively affordable, and business is booming, with total sales for the category expected to rise to £105.5 billion by 2025. And according to another report, about one-third of DIY home security systems feature a security camera of some sort. Seems innocent enough, right?
But when you look into things more, you’ll find that a lot of home security devices including cameras require a monthly subscription for you to get any utility out of them. So in essence, that shiny new camera or smart doorbell you just installed is a brick, unless you pay Nest, August, Simplisafe, and others a monthly fee for their services.
The argument for these fees is that features like interactive video control, AI-assisted face detection, and cloud storage are too sophisticated or costly to give away for free, and that may be true. But the need to fork over money so that you can use your devices feels terrible.
Thankfully, there are home security systems and cams from Arlo, D-Link, Eufy and Logitech that offer a free service tier, so you can store camera footage locally and manage that data as you choose. But with the way the security-as-a-service industry is going, it’s hard to say how much longer these options will continue to exist.
Is game streaming going to kill the console or our bank accounts?
Featuring Google Stadia, Microsoft xCloud, Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Now.
Between battle passes, season passes, subscription fees in World of Warcraft and other MMOs, Xbox Gold, PlayStation Plus, Nintendo Switch Online, constant DLC and more, the whole games-as-a-service trend is in full effect. And more recently, through things like EA Access and Xbox Game Pass, game publishers are testing out the feasibility of Netflix-style video game delivery.
However, the subscription service madness doesn’t end there because, with the imminent arrival of major game streaming platforms such as Google Stadia and potentially Microsoft xCloud (Microsoft hasn’t released pricing plans for xCloud yet), the tech world has invented yet one more way to hoover up your cash in bite-sized chunks.
Yes, the upside of not having to buy a new console every couple years could be a boon to casual gamers, and there is a free tier of Stadia where you can skip the monthly fee and pay for the cost of the game itself. But if you do opt for Stadia’s £8.99 a month plan, after two years, that monthly payment adds up to enough to almost buy a used Nintendo Switch, PS4 or Xbox One – so how much are you saving?
So what are you supposed to do?
The short answer is to take a hard look at all the various subscriptions you pay for every month and decide which ones are worth it. Because if you don’t then your music sub, streaming video, various cloud storage, home security and gaming services can quickly balloon into recurring payments that suck your funds dry.
Thankfully, there are finance apps like Clarity Money designed to highlight all your various subscriptions, and can even help you track down that one subscription you forgot to cancel a couple of years ago. Also, more general purpose finance tools like Mint group recurring bills into one easy to track category.
But regardless of how you track your spending, you better figure out a solution that works for you, because the service wars are just getting started. You want someone to monitor your credit and protect you from fraud. Yes, that’s another monthly charge. How about fashionable clothes delivered to your door? Cool, that’ll be even more money. Streaming video, music, and cloud storage? Stump up. Credits for your favourite exercise class? Stretch that wallet, please.
It’s too much, and it’s not going to stop. The only one that can prevent a subscription service firestorm is you.
Featured image: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)