Reflections on Apple’s Subscription Changes, TextExpander, and Overcast

Overview

While all eyes will focus on WWDC 2016, I’m still pondering Apple’s subscription changes. The best discussion about recurring subscriptions can found at atp.fm’s 173th episode at 22:14.

I have a mixed point of view from both the consumer side and a developer/program-manager point of view.

Since Apple just announced the subscription model changes I can only speak of recent experience with software that has changed pricing to a subscriptions-based model.

The Products

The two products I’m going to cover are TextExpander and the Overcast podcast player.

Please note that I am not trying to demonize Smile Software for their pricing changes. Every business has the right to change pricing, products, and whatever other things that will help them survive and thrive. A business casts its dice and sees where their product/pricing decisions land in terms of consumer acceptance or rejection. While I may disagree with their direction, I respect Smile for choosing to make a change due to whatever strategy they see fit for themselves.

TextExpander

I had a somewhat of a severe allergic reaction to Smile Software’s announcement about their new subscription model. My point of view was best summarized by the following from my post:

I’m a consumer of TextExpander, not a “life hacker”. I’m not a business, and I’m certainly not an “enterprise user”. So I speak from this perspective.

I can’t justify TextExpander’s subscription pricing. As mentioned before, I can justify needed upgrades due to application breakage from operating system upgrades. Maybe I’m frugal (I’m still sporting an iPhone 5S and am patiently waiting for the iPhone 7S plus), but $50 per year for a text editing class application is very hard for me to justify.

My reaction was echoed by many other TextExpander users, and Smile created a lower subscription price tier for their old customers. They also brought back their standalone apps. Considering the investment that Smile put into changing subscription models, I wonder how long these pricing additions will last.

It’s been a few months, and my opinion hasn’t changed. Smile has provided a very useful utility that is akin to the usefulness of Apple’s built-in dictionary. In fact, Apple has similar functionality; it’s just that it isn’t implemented well.

I can completely see Smile’s desire for subscription pricing. Something that’s recurring and predictable is much more desirable to something that is a one-time payment with an extremely unpredictable upgrade schedule. However, for a dictionary type of application – how many upgrades should a business expect?

Frequently, Adobe is held up as the poster child for software subscriptions. However, it’s a poster child for a very specific type of software – professional apps used by designers and creatives. Within this niche, it’s easy to see that Adobe is improving their software all of the time and rather than batch it’s updates into major releases every 2 to 3 years, it now does it on a continuous basis. After all, how different is today’s Photoshop from previous version?

Sketch is in the same class as Adobe’s applications, so its subscription pricing makes sense too. It’s an (excuse the pun) apple-to-apple comparison.

Now does the above apply to TextExpander? Are significant features added to TextExpander on a regular basis? I think the answer is a definitive ‘no.’ It’s like asking whether Apple will put significant updates into their built-in dictionary app. I can’t recall any such update in past years, nor do I expected such an update. After all, a dictionary (as in the app that shows you words rather than the evolution of the words in the English language) is just a dictionary.

The Overcast Podcast Player

Overcast is a podcast app on iOS. Sure there is the built-in Apple podcast app, but it isn’t that great. I’ve been a user since day one when I paid $4.99 for the app. I’m a big fan of Marco Arment so I may be a tad biased.

Nevertheless, Overcast is excellent in terms of its Voice Boost and Smart Speed features. I especially like Smart Speed since it lets me speed through many podcasts at 2x speed without loss of comprehension or enjoyment.

Last year, Marco switched to a patronage model. In other words, he changed the pricing to optional subscriptions without feature loss within the app (the previous fixed pricing unlocked the app’s feature and now these are free). The patronage model has the following subscription tiers:

  • 3 months of patronage for $2.99
  • 6 months for $5.99
  • 12 months for $11.99

When I initially saw this change I thought “I can’t believe I paid full price for the app and now it’s free.” I mulled this over for a few days and realized that I was OK with it. Initially, I thought that I would go for the $2.99 tier. But then I thought about my heavy usage of the app and the fact that I liked what Marco stood for so I went for the 12 month subscription.

As a consumer, I appreciate Marco’s design choices in creating Overcast and the fact that he’s a one man shop that is trying to keep podcasts open and private for both podcast producers and consumers. So maybe my acceptance of this voluntary subscription model is based on the usefulness of the app and the cause that it stands for.

Conclusion

I know that comparing the subscription models of TextExpander and Overcast is unfair. One app seems frivolous in its application of subscription pricing while the other app’s use of subscriptions is meaningful to me.

Maybe as a consumer I’m just inherently unfair due to my built-in biases and experiences. Jason Snell is worried about the app economy and tip jars. Subscription pricing is not too far away from his concerns. As I look at my iPhone’s phone home screen I wonder which of the apps I would pay for subscriptions:

  • Overcast? (see above)
  • TextExpander app and keyboard (see above)
  • GoodReader? ($1 to $2 per year for maintenance and tiny UI updates),
  • Soulver? ($1 per year for maintenance; I don’t need anything to change),
  • Day One? (Up to $10 per year if the promised encrypted sync works as advertised and helps me backup my pictures),
  • ByWord? (nope; I got suckered by premium features before and I’ve paid for the macOS app too besides the lack of response to any support questions…it feels abandoned),
  • Pedometer++? ($1 per year for maintenance and because I like David Smith…I don’t need more additions to beyond the blue confetti)

Apple’s subscription pricing changes may open the floodgates to lots of apps that request users for subscriptions. I wonder how many of these will seem frivolous to consumers and how many will be meaningful?