Ulysses goes subscription – the subscriptapocalypse is upon us

My favourite writing app for the Mac, Ulysses, announced yesterday that it has decided to switch to a subscription model. Here's my two cents.

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

My favourite writing app for the Mac, Ulysses, announced yesterday that it has decided to switch to a subscription model. A minimalist text editor, Ulysses uses iCloud to sync texts between Apple devices, and draws upon a special language called markdown to export texts into a variety of formats (e.g. html, PDF, docx, WordPress). It’s a really handy way to remove distractions from your work, and just focus on the task of writing. Concentrate on getting the text down, and focus on the fiddly stuff, such as formatting and publishing, later.

One of the co-founders of the development team behind Ulysses, Max Seeleman, has posted a lengthy post on Medium about why they’ve decided to switch to subscription. Essentially, it all comes down to the need to secure a continuous revenue stream, that will allow the Ulysses team to expand and provide new features. My problem with this decision is that, in my opinion, Ulysses is feature-complete. As a minimalist text editor, the whole selling point of Ulysses is that it doesn’t have the feature ‘bloat’ of other software, such as Word. Also, beyond the writing experience, Ulysses doesn’t provide much that warrants a shift to a subscription. Ulysses doesn’t use its own sync service, but instead piggybacks on the one already built in to Mac and iOS. All I care about is that bugs continue to be patched, and if a major update comes along, with killer new features I just have to have, I will be happy to pay for an upgrade.

I have already paid a hefty premium for Ulysses as it is. I don’t want to pay an annual subscription for additional features I don’t use, all to protect access to my own writing. The Ulysses team have offered a lifetime discount on the monthly premium for current users, but is Ulysses truly worth the $40 a year they now want to charge –— $80 over two years, or $120 over three?

Now, I completely understand that developers need to eat, like all humans. And I also appreciate that the current financing model for software is broken, at a time when most of us upgrade our phones every couple of years, and major OS updates are an annual occurrence. But there is a limit to how many monthly subscriptions the average user can handle. Developers always use the clichéd comparison of ‘just a cup of coffee’, but with your subscriptions to iCloud, Dropbox, Evernote, Amazon Music, Netflix, Amazon Prime etc. etc., all these ‘coffees’ quickly add up.

Not all subscriptions are poor value. Microsoft Office 365 is a bargain, considering the features it provides,1 and Amazon Prime bundles in such a lot (free next-day delivery, photo storage, prime video, music, books, magazines . . .) it’s an absolute steal if you’re invested in Amazon’s ecosystem. If you work in the creative industries, paying a small monthly amount for Adobe Creative Cloud is a much better proposition that shelling out hundreds of dollars for Photoshop and Lightroom. For products like 1Password, you’re effectively taking out an insurance policy to protect your digital security. But the value of subscriptions is less clear when the up-front cost is moderate (e.g. $40) and the product is effectively ‘complete’, with no further room for development.

What I expect will happen is that ‘Netflixes for Apps’ like Setapp will become more commonplace in the next few years, as users seek to derive optimum value from subscriptions.2 In the long-run, changes to App Store policies are inevitable, otherwise the glut of terrific apps we currently enjoy will quickly turn into drought. App developers will fold, and arguably the thing that attracts most customers to Apple’s expensive hardware in the first place will be eviscerated. Beyond a handful of ‘essential’ apps with clear value, users will simply stay away from new subscriptions. After all, incomes are not growing in much of the developed world as quickly as they used to.

For my part, I am seriously reappraising my reliance on third-party apps for much of my work. Increasingly, I am going back to Apple’s default apps, which are often perfectly adequate, and can be virtually guaranteed to work with major operating system changes. The subscriptapocalypse is upon us, and I for one am bunkering down.

  1. Up to 5TB of OneDrive storage and access to the Microsoft Office suite.
  2. Lo and behold, Ulysses is there, making Setapp a much more appealing proposition.

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