3 Feb 2017

Lock-in and Subscriptions Don't Go Together

More apps nowadays are being offered with subscription pricing. Apple is now rolling subscriptions out broadly to iOS and Mac developers. I recently subscribed to a media player app, which isn't something I'd have thought five years ago that I'd do. This is a new world for many of us.

As we enter this new world, the question of which pricing model is in users' best interests has arisen. When I thought about this, I realised that some types of apps are a bad fit for subscription pricing.

And this all boils down to lock-in. You should think twice before subscribing to an app that locks you in, because now you've unknowingly signed for recurring payments. And lock-in isn't always intentional, and it's often subtle, not obvious at first glance when you're evaluating whether to subscribe to an app.

Let's look at various types of apps that you should think twice before before subscribing to:

Apps with a custom file format: I bought Acorn, the image editor, a few years back, and occasionally use it. I have some .acorn files lying around [1]. I'd hate to lose access to my data because I didn't renew a subscription.

Apps with no file format to export to: Imagine you subscribed to a reminders app. If you decide to stop paying, and want to export your reminders, there isn't a standard format to export them to. That makes it harder for you to switch, locking you. That makes a reminders app a poor fit for subscriptions. Or any other app with no file format to export to. I'd either pay upfront, or have in-app purchases for premium features, or have it be free.

Apps with poor export functions: I wanted to backup all my notes in Apple Notes, as I do every quarter with all my cloud services. But Notes, shockingly, offers no bulk export feature. The best you can do is export a single note at once. I can't do that dozens of times. Even if I did, it exports only to PDF, which is hard to edit. Why can't Notes offer me a few choices of export format — Word, RTF and plain text? [2]

Apps that lose organisation on export: Many apps store your data as a library within the app itself, rather than making you manage your files in the filesystem. Such apps usually store data in the cloud, but some store it locally. Such apps usually have their own organisation, in the form of tags or folders.

An example is Simplenote, a plain-text-only notes app, in which I had two hundred notes, organised with different tags. Simplenote has lost my data multiple times over the years, so I wanted to move away from it. It has an export function, but that did not preserve my tags: it dumped all two hundred notes in one folder [3]. My painstakingly created tags were all thrown away. This makes me think twice before moving away from Simplenote. I'm locked-in. And lock-in and subscriptions don't go together. I don't want to be locked in to paying someone again and again.

Non-destructive editing: I'm a heavy Lightroom user, with 80GB of photos in it. Lightroom edits photos non-destructively — you can undo any edit any time [4]. Even after years. That also solves the problem of generation loss — you shouldn't edit a JPEG, save it back to JPEG format, and edit it again, and so on, because the quality gets worse each time.

But you can't move your photos out of Lightroom along with the non-destructive edits. When you export, all edits are applied permanently. This makes it hard to move away from Lightroom. You're effectively locked in. And the last I want to be locked in to is recurring payments [5].

Recently, when I looked at upgrading from my older version of Lightroom (version 5), I decided not to go with Creative Cloud, for exactly this reason [6]. If at some point in the future, I'll need a more recent version of Lightroom, I'll buy it upfront, once again.

Apps with plugins: Some apps, like Lightroom and Apple Photos, support plugins. Some plugins are free, and others paid. If I was paying for Lightroom as a subscription, I wouldn't buy a plugin, since my investment will go waste should I decide to discontinue my Lightroom subscription [7].

So, if all these categories of apps are aren't a good fit for subscription, what are? Apps that don't store your data, like a camera app or a text editor. Apps that you can easily stop using when you decide to, like a media player. Or other kinds of apps not covered by the above list.

This is the opposite of the conventional wisdom. People are generally more willing to subscribe to cloud services, for example, on the premise that cloud services incur a regular cost for the developer. But when I buy an app, I don't care about the developer's costs. I care about my own benefits and costs [8], like being locked-in to regular payments. And when I pursue that question, and ask what kind of apps work well with subscription, my answer is the opposite of the conventional wisdom.


[1] I couldn't have been saved them as PNG or JPEG because I'd lose the layers.

[2] Apps could offer to directly import my data from a competing service. For example, if I want to move from Apple Notes to Google Keep, Keep could have an Import From Apple Notes feature. This is the only way to transfer data in the absence of a mutually supported file format that one service can export to and the other can import from.

[3] Yes, I know that a note can have multiple tags, while a file can belong to only one folder. There's an easy way to fix that problem, which is to consider only the first tag (in alphabetical order). Most notes have only one tag, so optimise for the common case. Don't mess up the common case because you can't handle an edge case well.

[4] With a big limitation: If you crop a photo, adjust brightness, and then realised that you cropped out too much, you can't undo the crop without undoing the brightness adjustment as well. Lightroom goes only halfway towards the promise of "you can change anything anytime". Apple Photos is a better model — in this example, you open the crop tool again, and adjust the crop.

[5] Unless this lock-in is counteracted by subscriptions that are an order of magnitude cheaper than upfront payment, like ₹999 a year compared to ₹7000 upfront.

[6] And that Creative Cloud offers me just 2GB of cloud storage. That's a joke, when Google gives me 15GB free, and Dropbox gives me a terabyte for $100. My Lightroom library is 80GB. I offered to pay more for more storage, but Adobe said no.

[7] Unless the plugin itself charges me via a subscription.

[8] And businesses don't always charge customers based on their costs. If I as a developer were to rent my iMac from Apple instead of buying it outright, does it follow that my customers suddenly need to start paying me via a subscription? Of course not. The developer's costs have no connection to the pricing model, as long as the pricing model covers costs and generates a healthy profit.

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