Ulysses becomes a subscription-based app

A vivid discussion sprang up on the internet three days ago when The Soulmen, developers of Ulysses, announced that their popular text editor for macOS and iOS had become a subscription-based app. This rather unanticipated step has rendered the group of Ulysses fans bipolar. Subscription lovers claim that the application is much more affordable via a low monthly fee than a big payment upfront, while their opponents argue that it practically forces them to pay for the software in perpetuity, in order to be able to preserve its functionality. As always in similar cases, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and both sides have some valid points in the discussion.

Everything began with this post on Building Ulysses — a blog ran by The Soulmen, quickly followed by an official announcement on Ulysses website. Mentioned post is very elaborated and covers a lot of behind-the-scenes aspects of developing Ulysses and costs related to the process, and I really recommend you to read it before following this very article. To summarise it, Ulysses switched to subscription in order to maintain the high quality of the product, ensure fast and multiple updates and guarantee a stable income for the developers. As they stated:

„We want to make sure the app will be around for years and years to come. We want to heavily invest in its development, and this requires the right setting for our team, our families and our users. Writers want to rely on a professional tool that is constantly evolving, and we want to keep delivering just that.”

Seems right and fair? At first glance, yes. But don’t let all those PR slogans and flourish fool you: software subscription lies in the best interest of developers, not customers.

What is the main principle of developers switching from one-time purchase to subscription-based model for monetising their software?
The official/PR version: We want to continuously improve and develop our software so we can give you the best user experience and functionality.
The unofficial/true version: We want to continuously improve and stabilise our income by collecting money from our customers on a regular basis and by making them fully dependent on the use of the subscription-based version of our application for managing their content.

It’s as simple as that.

There are numerous examples of popular applications that went that way:

  • Day One (currently known as Day One Classic) allowed users to store their content locally or to synchronise it with other devices via iCloud or Dropbox. It was available as a one-time purchase. When Day One 2 appeared in the App Store it abandoned iCloud and Dropbox support completely, forcing customers to use its proprietary synchronisation service. Few months later standard version of the application was removed from the App Store on both macOS and iOS, replaced by a subscription-based version. One of the reasons behind introducing recurring payments was the cost of… maintaining infrastructure required for proprietary cloud storage and synchronisation.
  • Adobe Photoshop (as well as all other Adobe software) switched from standard purchase model to a subscription. While a one-time purchase required substantial amount of money due to the sheer price of the Creative Suite package, the software itself remained fully functional for an unlimited amount of time. Creative Cloud version of Photoshop (or any other application) is fully usable for the time of subscription (which is pretty obvious and totally fair for me), but once you stop paying, it’s practically rendered useless, even if you’ve been paying subscription fee for years, effectively spending much more money than in a one-time purchase scenario (which is not that fair in my opinion; after reaching a certain threshold in the cost or duration of subscription software should retain some basic/limited functionality even if subscription itself is expired). There is also a matter of compatibility — for example, Camera Raw module in Creative Cloud version of Photoshop is not compatible with Creative Suite 6 — the last version that was available as a one-time purchase. Therefore any photographs developed with subscription-based versions of Camera Raw will not be readable in Camera Raw that shipped with the last non-subscription-based version of Photoshop.

The list could go on with dozens of other applications, like Microsoft Office, 1Password, Parallels Desktop (it’s at least still available as a one-time purchase, too), etc. The trend is truly unsettling. Forcing users to switch to subscription seems like an easy way of stabilising the income of developers, but the cost of the transition and responsibilities are transferred to end users instead. Ultimately they have to figure out how to save money for yet another subscription and they will have to work in a subscription-based application with a constant awareness that the moment they stop paying — the software will be rendered useless, and all their content, in the best case, only available for export.

The worst thing is that the change from customer-centric to developer-centric model is based on false premises. The Soulmen stated:

”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 (…). 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. (…)

Things changed with the advent of the internet, of course. As soon as we had dial-up connections, developers could offer small patches to fix issues that were found after shipping. And once broadband connections were ubiquitously available, larger and more frequent patches were possible. 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.”

I remember well times when to connect to the internet one had to use a dial-up connection. All programs were available as a one-time purchase and yes, you basically got what you paid for. However, programs developed in those times were immune to most of bugs and absolutely stunning in the terms of stability. Developers knew they had to do it right the first time, because once the program was sent to the CD pressing factory, there was literally nothing they could do to change a single character in the code. That is the proper way of developing product — making it absolutely the best it can be in the current iteration. I don’t know when we lost this goal along the road. Most of developers that started their careers in the last 20 years have known the benefits of wider-available, faster internet connection. They somehow transitioned to the new philosophy: Let’s make this software good enough for the initial release, and we’ll worry about bug fixes later. This is the philosophy adapted by Ulysses’ developers. And it’s wrong. There are programs, available even now, that are superb in their first published iteration. Sure, some of them require patches and fixes in the future, but the product available at the day one is fully functional and fulfils all expectations users have for this first iteration of the software.

We, users, prefer to pay once for the product which functionality is known at the moment of purchase. We don’t want to pay regularly for the promise of future improvements!

I cant’t empathise this enough. Dear software developer: if you want to make a living as a developer, deliver a good quality product at the day if its initial release. Work on the improvements and new functions, and when the new version of software is ready, offer it as a paid upgrade. If your product is truly as good as you think it is, you will not have problem finding buyers for the new version. in fact, most of your previous customers will probably buy the updated version even if you don’t introduce any discount for them (Laminar Research works that way and they have never struggled with financial problems). Also, no one said you will be able to make a living on the base of a one program you wrote. If the single program you created doesn’t satisfy your financial needs, then you need to move on and create another tool or piece of software (Scrivener and Scapple from Literature & Latte are good examples).

In post on Building Ulysses you can read that:

”Now, paid updates need justification. You can’t just change a few small things, add a new icon and call for money. The update needs to add significantly to the current experience, or else there’s no reason to even update.”

So let’s check what Ulysses offers for this new, subscription-based version. I suppose users’ expectations should be even bigger for an update to the subscription model than for a paid update, considering the fact that you need to pay pretty much forever if you want to keep using Ulysses. This new subscription-based version offers:

  1. A new icon (sic!). Now your writing app is even more stylish with a different shade of yellow on butterfly’s wings…
  2. Free cross-platform 14-days trial. It isn’t a big deal, considering that after switching to subscription you could as well just pay $4.99 for a monthly subscription to check the app out. Plus most of subscription customers already own previous version of Ulysses, so the trial is practically useless to them.
  3. ”A single purchase will now unlock Ulysses for the use on all devices”. No, it will not, at least not per se. A repeating purchase will keep Ulysses unlocked for the use on all devices, but just as long as you keep paying. The moment your subscription expires your application will be locked again on all devices.
  4. ”Ulysses is a premium app, and its price tag will always reflect that. The new model now offers a low entry threshold combined with high flexibility and the option of minimal commitment.” I don’t really see that high flexibility and option of minimal commitment here. You can either a) pay subscription fee and have access to Ulysses and all your data stored in it or b) stop paying and become blocked out from further use of the software and editing your content stored in it. In order to continuously use Ulysses and to have unrestricted access to your content developers require your permanent commitment to the subscription-based model.

That’s basically it. Any new features? No. Any improvements on existing features? No. Any bug fixes? No.

There is one more thing that I believe The Soulmen got totally wrong. On their blog you can read that:

”Our users expect a continuously evolving high quality product — and subscription is the only way we can truly deliver on that expectation. (…)”

and, again:

”We want to heavily invest in its development (…). Writers want to rely on a professional tool that is constantly evolving, and we want to keep delivering just that.”

Wrong, wrong, thrice wrong! Ulysses is a simple markdown text editor, for heaven’s sake! It’s not even a word processor! Do you think that writers are craving for a constant flow of new features and special effects in a text editor? What new features, critical for writers, can you add to Ulysses to justify the need to demand from users the price of hitherto available one-time purchase each year, for the rest of their writing career? Using a fancy text editor is not required to achieve a success as a writer — George R.R. Martin is the excellent example. Also, these are your own words:

”Subscriptions set us free from the pressure of rolling out massive updates every year. We no longer need to combine an arbitrary set of features to create a fuzz or make a good reason for a paid update (…). For us as developers, it’s important that we have the freedom to experiment and try things out (…). We are less rushed to release features, and we are more inclined to iterate on them (…).”

Am I the only one who sees a contradiction here?

I understand that for many, many developers it is hard to achieve financial stability on the basis of ever-changing one-time purchases of their software. But forcing people to switch to a subscription is bad. It’s bad for users, but in the end it’s even worse for developers. Users can (and will) switch to other software in a heartbeat if they feel they had been cheated or deceived (and trust me, Ulysses users do feel that way — just look at the comments under the original blog post). Many people decided to give Scrivener a chance, and most of people already knowing both Scrivener and Ulysses declared permanently switching to the former. I had a few problems with previous version of Scrivener, but the current one works fine and I can see no reason why not to abandon Ulysses altogether in the favour of its more advanced competitor.

I’m a big antagonist of software subscriptions and I do not want to rent my copy of software on a monthly basis. Almost a year ago I switched from Adobe Creative Cloud subscription for Photoshop to Affinity Photo (offered as a one-time purchase) and since then I’ve never looked back. Affinity shows that it is possible to develop an advanced tool that can compete with the leader of the market without demanding monthly or yearly fees from its users. There are many examples of successful developers who earn on selling, not renting their software. That is how it used to be and trust me, there is no particular reason why this well-adapted business model cannot function in the modern world.

I used to recommend Ulysses as a good alternative to Scrivener and powerful enhancement over Byword, but only on the premise of buying the piece of software. I will not recommend software which business model involves locking users into paying monthly fee in perpetuity, in order to preserve basic functionality of the application and retaining full control of their own content. This article is the very last piece of text I’ve ever written in Ulysses. It’s the last favour to The Soulmen given out of the sentiment. I’m aware that my legacy version of Ulysses will continue to work for some time, until it finally breaks due to bugs in the code or OS incompatibility, but I’ve already lost my confidence in the developers of Ulysses, and I no longer trust this application to hold my works. I have also crossed out my recommendations of Ulysses from all my previous articles.