Subscriptions

I’ve wanted to write about this topic for a while so it feels serendipitous to be writing it using Ulysses. Ulysses has been the cause of much consternation in the Apple echo chamber in the last week or so. They moved to a subscription model to pay for access, rather than a one-off payment that secures your ability to use it in full.

I’m in the middle of the 14-day free trial you get when you first grab it, so that I can see what all the fuss is about. Anyway.

Let me start by saying that anyone should feel free to monetise their business however they like. I’m a small business owner myself whose revenue now primarily comes from subscriptions, so while the ‘net gives us access to untold potential riches and success, carving out your particular niche and convincing people to regularly hand over money for what you’re offering is exceptionally difficult.

So if the creators of Ulysses have decided that turning the application into a service is the best way for them to do that, to lock in a long-term sustainable customer base that’s willing to regularly pay for access to the app’s functionality, they should head down that path if it’s the right thing for them. That’s how our capitalist machinery works. Matt Gemmell covered that part nicely.

That’s not really the issue that underpins the strong reaction to yet another app turning itself into an ongoing service that you pay for access to, at least as far as I see it. I think the real problem is one of subscription fatigue. Ulysses can’t quite claim that it’s a utility in the sense that energy, water and data are. Don’t pay for it and your life won’t get materially worse. It’s a different kind of ask for things like software and online services.

In isolation, if Ulysses was the pioneer of subscription-driven access to a service or software: no big deal, we’d probably marvel and wish them well. But it’s not. It’s just another tossed onto a huge pile. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Apple Music, iCloud storage, Hulu, HBO, Office 365, Adobe Creative Cloud, 1Password, LastPass, your favourite printed magazine(s), YouTube Red, Backblaze, Evernote, every single newspaper you can think of, PlayStation Plus, Xbox Live, Nintendo Switch Online, individual games…

That’s just the popular tip of an enormous iceberg. If you don’t subscribe to at least one of those services in the list (assuming you live in the West) consider me genuinely surprised.

Along with the fatigue of having something else to consider paying for regularly is the cognitive overhead of managing it. Yes, taking care of your bank balance is something adults are supposed to do and not moan about, but each extra line item on my statement is one to check. Crap payment references, variable amounts if I get charged in different currencies, often no way to easily adjust payment dates so they cluster together…

That leads me onto my preferred solution for this, which I hope someone goes and builds:

A single entity that takes one monthly payment and distributes it to a bunch of stuff I want to subscribe to. Just give me a list, let me tick boxes for the stuff I want and show me a grand total. Then I pay that single entity and that’s it. Monthly statement aligned to a payment date I get to choose. Let me opt in and out of services whenever I like and handle any pro-rated bits smoothly.

I know that’s a tough ask because a lot of the popular subscription things are hidden behind walled gardens where the gardener is already the payment processor. On top of that, it should probably not be integrated with managing the credentials for whatever you’re subscribing to.

Still, I think there’s a market for a company like Stripe to build something here. Stripe Subs sounds nice (they can have that for free). They’re a popular, developer-friendly payment processor that already play in this space by proxy. Building something to allow you to manage all recurring payments in one place would be great, with some two-way communication with the service vendor so that unticking Spotify inside of Stripe Subs would let Spotify know for you. That kind of thing.

Build a Stripe Subs SDK so that service vendors can offer it at checkout. Then it talks to your existing Stripe Subs account and does what’s needed to setup the new service.

That’d remove the fatigue and cognitive load on managing an ever increasing amount of these things and let me adult properly with minimal friction. Build in special subscription offers and whatnot, and maybe a little marketplace inside the Stripe Subs portal for new stuff to throw money at, and everyone interested in either giving or making money is off to the races.

Until then, I thing the frustration that most people have is along those lines. Not that the service owner decided to make it a subscription or other recurring system to pay for their service — that’s entirely up to them and all fine — but that there’s so many now that it’s becoming a pain in the ass to manage, budget for, and keep track of.

First world problems I know. Oh, one last thing while I remember: one-stop shops that give you access to multiple things for a single payment, like SetApp, solve the problem in the wrong place I think. It should be solved at the payment processor instead.