Your tools are… tools

All right. I am going to dive into the fray of this once more because clearly I still need to get some things off my chest. In the days following the announcement of Ulysses move to a subscription-based offering, there’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled, and I am definitely one of the spillers. I can’t tell you how many times I have bitten my tongue, said nothing, did not respond to tweet or blog posts, just because I have a pretty strong assurance that nothing I say matters anyway. Adding fuel to the fire does nothing but make it burn a little and that’s it. It’s not changing a thing.

But I keep coming back to the Apple echo chamber, and the host of people who just go along with all this, and those are the people who get the most attention, primarily because the companies in question retweet their thoughts. No one associated with Ulysses will ever retweet this article, but they did retweet the article over at wolfe with an e. I read this work and I guess it was the last straw and I knew I needed to at least get a couple more things down, even if only for my own edification.

My last entry to this was written in the full fire of my disappointment and feelings of betrayal, so maybe I owe a more measured response, I don’t know. In any case, I have calmed down, and I am resigned, and my expectations are nil. If nothing else, this’ll contain less expletives, and I hope at the end of it all, I won’t feel the need to ever wade into this again. I’m just going to unfollow anyone who might trigger me and move on. There’s only so much mental space I have. I’ll start with wolfe’s article, and see where that takes me.

He first talks about how a 99 cent app won’t sustain development, or even a $10 app. I don’t know much about how these things work, and I’m not privy to Ulysses’s sales numbers. All I know is that the app was not $10. I paid closer to $100CAD for the apps. And no, $100 isn’t going to keep the lights on over there either, but $100 times the existing user base is a hell of a lot more money than what is being suggested here. As the people at Ulysses are fond of saying, it’s a ‘premium’ app, and is priced accordingly. This isn’t a fart app, and buying it isn’t something you do without considering it well. So let’s not couch this in terms of cheap apps whose revenue streams are fickle and never meant to sustain income. This isn’t one of those apps. Also, Ulysses said outright the system was working, they just wanted to ensure it kept working. This was a preemptive step, presumably based on information they extrapolated going forward as they tried to predict the future.

And you know what they (or maybe it was Woody Allen) say, if you really want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

Everything looks good on paper, but it doesn’t consider all things. I wonder if the folks at Ulysses just kinda assumed that most of the users would just suck it up and hang around. There’s this feeling, and wolfe points it out, that the real users, the power users, the ones for whom this is truly worthwhile, are more than happy to cough up the subscription–cost of doing business, after all!

Counterpoint: It’s not all of us, I can tell you that. If you look at my resume, you’ll see that I’ve been a professional writer for nearly two decades. I’m a true keyboard warrior, and, to use a quaint and approachable Sparksism from the echo chamber, I “pay for my shoes” by writing. My current Ulysses library, as I pointed out in my last rant, tops one million words. I’m pretty secure in thinking I can put myself out there as a ‘pro’. And yet, one of the main reasons I chose Ulysses over anything else was its stance (and assurance from the makers of the software) that it would not go SaaS. Speaking for myself as a writer, my words mean everything to me. They are precious, and I’m not at all on side with someone else having control over any aspect of that process. My tools should be tools. They should not leave me beholden to a ransom. Clearly, among the “pros” out there I must be some kind of outlier, but I can’t be alone on this.

And if I’m one of many pros, then add that number to the very, very many “casual” users that just jumped ship and one wonders if Ulysses really won on this one, especially when, as wolfe also pointed out, the cost difference between using the software for three years and then repurchasing it is nearly the cost of subscribing for three years. Was it truly worth all this negative feeling, this loss of goodwill? All of you try to couch this in terms of money only but what about the people who used to absolutely evangelize this software? Where are they going to be now? Show me YouTube in a year and compare how many “Ulysses–the BEST writing app EVAAAAR!” Videos there will be from today. Where’s the price of that factored in, especially now that you’ve pretty much guaranteed all those ‘casual’ users aren’t coming back? If you can show me impressive numbers of people coming to use the software on an ‘as needed’ basis I will be utterly shocked, and I take my hat off to you. That’s absolutely an idea better left as theory–practice will be embarrassingly anaemic. All this is to say that if I were to wager a guess I’d say that sure, your sustainable revenue stream is there, but its actual value in dollars, for all that it’s steady, will not be what you had when you weren’t running that model. I mentioned it before, but honestly, who wins in the end, money from those who need the app, or from those who want it and can afford it when they want it?

Wolfe says we aren’t paying enough for our tools. That somehow, we have this skewed idea that we should get everything for free. This one’s been stated more times than I can count on twitter: “I don’t mind paying for good software. I mind renting it.” The difference is, you’re not buying anything here. After that three year subscription and paying all that money, you own nothing. That’s important to people like me. No one is saying that Ulysses should be a dollar. We all agreed to that when we bought it at a premium. 

Ulysses is, however, a text editor. For all it’s couched as a premium product, it’s not a professional writing environment. In my day to day, I’m often called upon to use Frame Maker, Adobe’s professional grade publication software. That is a pro-level, premium package. And guess what, it’s sold standalone. From Adobe. Just let that one sink in for a minute. A piece of software like Ulysses going subscription is laughable at any price. At the asking price? That’s madness.

Ulysses’ big strength is that it associates data. Look at any file moved out of the database, and it’s a ‘.ulysses’ file. Open that package and you have the text file, and you also have associated images, files, etc. There’s nothing magic about it. The secret sauce is that it makes it easier to do things. As has been pointed out, and I have discovered, there’s nothing Ulysses can do that can’t be done for cheaper, without SaaS. To pay the same and get it all plus all sorts of stuff you’ll likely never use, go Scrivener. To be frugal, get yourself the trusty old folder hierarchy on your hard disk, make sure it’s backed up well or sync it to whatever cloud storage you like. Put your text files in there and access them using nvAlt on your Mac and 1Writer on your iPad (or just use Byword for both), and you’ve got a pretty similar experience. Yup, it’s more futzy to manage and publish, and casual users might not be able to put it all together, but it’s doable. Question is, is that futz-factor worth an annual subscription? Well, we’ve already established that the people who would maybe most benefit from it, the lowly ‘casual user’ isn’t going to pay for it, so who is left? The (ahem) “pro” user who doesn’t want to think about organization. Is that user base as large? Will their willingness to “not think twice” be enough to save this writing platform?

Time will tell.

All this spilled virtual ink is moot at this point in any case. I doubt I’ve changed any minds, and I’m not expecting a ‘mia culpa’ from Ulysses. It’s in my court to decide what I want to do–if it is ‘worth it’ to me to add another subscription to my monthly budgetary demands. But I have one more point to make, and I’m not sure it’s valid, but it’s something that is nagging me, so here goes.

As I was writing out possible alternatives–what if they kept things the way it was, what if they added a point-release mini subscription scenario or whatever, I got to thinking that this whole subscription thing is a way of moving the onus of being a successful, profitable company from the owners to the users.

Used to be, and often still is, that the way software ran was pay for it, take it home, use it. Buy it again when there was a reason to do so. Those reasons were entirely in the control of developers. They needed to DO something. They needed to add the features people wanted so things were compelling (it’s pretty much why we keep buying iPhones) and so people would pony up. Or they needed to branch out–make something NEW, something we never knew we needed. Push the barrier forward. Earn the money you’re asking for. Now all they want is a secure revenue stream. Ulysses didn’t offer anything new to its users this week when they dropped that bomb. The theoretical improvements coming down the pike no one knows about may or may not be worth the price of a year’s subscription, but we don’t know that. We can’t make up our own minds as consumers. We just need to open our wallets and let ourselves be pick-pocketed and hope, mindless money repositories we are to the indie dev community. You say the app isn’t sustainable? Is that really on me as a consumer? Is it really up to me to make your company work? Really? My role, as I see it, is to buy your stuff. You want me to clean up the corner you’ve painted yourself into as well?

That’s a bullshit way to treat your customers, pro or not. It’s a lazy way to get cash for something you haven’t yet done on the idea that you might someday do it. And if it doesn’t happen? Whatever. The backers will never know.

As a writer, you better damned well believe I value my tools. But make no mistake they are tools. When a plumber needs a wrench, he buys the best damned one he can so he can do the job best, longest. He buys a new one when it breaks. Depending upon the quality, he fosters brand loyalty. No one will come and take his wrench away because he didn’t pay for it this month. As a writer, my tools are software and hardware. Apple is my chosen hardware because for me, it’s a damned good tool. Software is also a tool I choose. Until last week, I chose Ulysses. Ulysses isn’t a tool anymore though–now, it’s a service, like cable. And just like cable, I can do without.

3 Replies to “Your tools are… tools”

  1. 1. The subscription model can only work if Ulysses hits a critical mass of users. A lot of people are blindly, unthinkingly, and unquestioningly saying that the subscription model makes the company sustainable, but until that critical mass is surpassed, nothing is assured. There is no point in having a subscription model if the number of subscribers is so low that the company cannot stay afloat. Given the reaction to the announcement and that Ulysses is starting from a low-install base of tens of thousands of users (according to its website), it seems possible that the company could easily close in the months ahead. 20,000 subscribers at €40 each would bring in €800,000 a year. Take out Apple’s 30% and Ulysses is down to €560,00. Allow for tax, insurance, offices, IT equipment, staff, etc, and the bank account empties pretty quickly. What then for the people who have subscribed for a year but find that Ulysses cannot deliver any product at all? If they only had tens of thousands of users in the first place and the apps now only have 2-star reviews on the different App Stores, it is hard to see Ulysses signing up many subscribers from its current base, let alone attracting new users (and it has lost a lot of evangelists who were recruiters). For me, the risk of using Ulysses is now too great.

    2. The developer of Scrivener has said that his app will be abandoned when he dies (or walks away from the company), and he has also said that Scrivener will not last forever. Great app, but an amateur company that is sitting on millions of pounds of profit but not spending that money on developers or customers. For me, the risk of relying on Scrivener and its sole developer are also too great.

    With Ulysses in disarray, and with the Scrivener for Windows team struggling to get a beta version of Scrivener 3 ready (to offer minimal levels of compatibility), the developer/owner has gone on holiday.


  2. Agreed. I use Ulysses on an on-and-off basis. It was a critical and comforting home for the development of my dissertation. Even though I had to abandon it when APA formatting took center stage.

    Ulysses was a welcome companion until it became a rental. I had fallen in love with this app. And my significant brand loyalty evaporated in a moment. It went from “very fun” to “dead chicken around my neck.”

    A plain text editor that would cost $300 over ten years? That places Ulysses decisively in the realm of “Netflix for words I may, or may not, write.”

    No thanks. And thank you for your Eeyore-like rant. It was delicious.

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