When I was just starting University, I got a letter out of the blue from the folks at Visa. They offered me a credit card, and I didn’t even need to prove anything to them. I was elated. It was then that my father, a man of very few words, looked at me, shook his head in a gesture that I’d come to know as resigned disapproval, and offered his one bit of advice: “Just don’t carry a balance.”
For some reason, thank goodness, that advice stuck. I have had a Visa card for many decades now, and those folks haven’t made money off me. I never once sold myself out to Visa just so I could own something. The things I bought were paid off when the bill came, and they were mine. This was in stark contrast to some people I knew of who were still paying off jackets they bought on credit long after they’d gotten rid of them.
This philosophy has carried out through my life. I hate being indebted to anyone for anything. My car was paid off as soon as I could manage it; I sacrificed a lot of things so that I could overpay and get it done, and I have enjoyed being down to maintenance on it for well over half the time I’ve owned it. And it’s still going strong. I just pay for the oil changes and service.
God willing, I won’t have a mortgage for much longer either–same philosophy.
This is to say that I have been very well served indeed by making sure when I bought something, it was mine–it didn’t still belong to other people in whatever way. And that brings us to the crux of what I wanted to get off my chest. Software as a Service. Also known as SaaS, or subscription pricing. I have been walking around livid for two days now, utterly disgusted with The Soulmen, a group of developers whose praises I have sung for years to anyone who would listen to me. They made the decision to move their platform to SaaS this week, and I was shocked. I mean, I felt betrayed. It was the last straw and what made me write this wall of text.
A little back history:
I bought a Mac for the first time back in the early aughts. Part of the reason I did so was because of the OS–neat, clean, no bloat, rock solid. I completely love macOS, using Windows at work only serves to make me ache to get back home. Another reason was the software. You could get things on a Mac that weren’t available anywhere else, and if you looked, the Mac could be such a beautiful place to work. There’s still bits of software that Windows and Android users would sorely love to have access to.
More than this, I learned over time that some bits of software improved my life. Literally. And I was in such a happy place before it all went to pot. Here’s what my software life looked like, all built on top of macOS, with iCloud drive and Dropbox as back ends:
- YNAB for finance. (a true game changer)
- Ulysses for writing.
- Day One for my daily diary.
- Tweetbot for Twitter.
- OmniFocus for organizing.
- TextExpander to make life so, so much easier.
- Hazel to handle all of my filing so elegantly I don’t even think about it.
- Keyboard Maestro so I need to think even less.
- Due for reminders that I never, ever forget.
- Reeder to keep up on news feeds when I don’t want to surf mindless drivel.
- Overcast for all things podcasting.
Obviously, I have all the Apple stock apps, and a number of Apple software on the side, and all of it is brilliant.
But looking at this list, 5 of the 11 have gone the way of SaaS, and each one was a bitter pill.
YNAB was first, as I recall. I, and the rest of the stalwart group of die-hard users who had been using it for years were rightly upset. The thing went from a $70CAD purchase to a $70CAD annual fee. This for budgeting software. Aren’t you supposed to be frugal? Isn’t that the point? The move decimated the community of people who loved to talk on the forums about everything from budgeting to KonMari tidying. It was a lovely place. People begged for a reconsideration. Not only had the team at YNAB gone subscription, they replaced the tried and true methods that they themselves had been advocating for years, things that hundreds, nay thousands of users had proven worked with confusing, terrible crap. The software was half-baked when it launched, and in the nearly two years hence, it hasn’t gotten all that much better. Some of the features that die-hard users utterly relied upon were unceremoniously extinguished from the app, and the pleas to bring these things back fell on completely deaf ears. The YNAB tone of voice that was meant to sound so friendly and great now sounded condescending and mean. Behind all the sugar was the sense that they seriously just didn’t give a fuck about the people who got them to where they were. They were betting that the new user base, along with whoever would come along, would be good enough. I guess it was, at least for now. YNAB endures. The only nice thing I can say about it, is that they have kept the basics running for we who are still using the software. It hasn’t broken. I am still using YNAB4, the last iteration of the software before SaaS, and although it’s showing occasional hiccups, it is still the reason my finances look better today than they ever have. It truly wasn’t ever broken–they didn’t need to ‘fix’ it.
Next up, TextExpander. That was a shit show unto itself. Many, many people balked at the idea of paying an annual fee of $40USD to substitute text, under the premise that it was all going in house and online. People were happy with having snippets synced via Dropbox–it worked. There was such an uproar that the people at Smile backed off and offered lifetime discounts of 50% to existing users just to calm things down. And that’s where we stand. I guess, once again, they are still afloat, so perhaps it’s working, or perhaps the fact that Smile isn’t a one-trick pony and has other software to leverage is helping. I don’t know.
Day One may have been the most bitter up to that point. Longtime users of Day One (and I certainly count myself among them at 4755 entries since I started using it–I haven’t missed a day) were once again pretty damned pissed. Once again, it was a situation where devs, this time the folks at Bloom Built, were adding things that no one wanted, to justify moving to a subscription. They built their own back end and forbade the use of Dropbox, and then touted “great things to come”. However, unlike others, they swore that you could keep using, and that they would keep supporting (this is key), the platform as it was that day for as long as you wanted to use it. So, if you liked the way it was working, and you didn’t care about the “great new things” you could freeze your functionality right there and they would support you going forward. That was a compromise I could live with. Maybe they were moving on and leaving me behind by way of future features, but at least they weren’t taking anything away from me that I paid for. It added a spoonful of sugar.
Overcast is weird. Marco’s been trying to figure this stuff out forever with explanations ad nauseam all over ATP whenever a new change has come about. For the moment, he’s settled on 10 bucks a year, and it’s all optional. The software still works regardless, he takes nothing away, but instead offers a ‘better experience’ for those who subscribe. And a buck a month for an ad-free experience with the ability to upload your own stuff is where he’s settled. Since this figure doesn’t make me want to reach through my monitor and shake him, I guess it’s a sweet spot, and fair.
And now, Ulysses. This one has the potential to be as bad a wake up call for The Soulmen as TextExpander was for Smile. Even worse. And you can call me whatever you want, I truly hope this blows up all over them. I want them to fail. Back when YNAB did is thing, I was so concerned about this very thing that I tweeted out in fear, looking for some reassurance from the app makers whose software I’d grown to love and invested so much in, and I got that reassurance from Ulysses:
Bloom shuffled their feet uncomfortably, which made me wince, but Ulysses I felt good about after this. I even comforted myself saying that if Day One ever totally became unusable for me, I could simply do my daily journals in Ulysses. I went in whole hog with Ulysses. I haven’t invested in software like this, ever. They are my writing rig. They are perfect in every way. I told people online and in person that if they needed to write on a Mac, this was the way to go. As of this week’s horrible news, here’s what my library stats looked like:
Even I was shocked. Over one million words so far. All from me. Everything from my life story in journals to NaNoWriMo novels to notes about the house, to blog posts, and more. And all of it safe, and all of it mine, and all of it backed by a company who’d promised me that wouldn’t change.
And then it changed. And it changed so offhandedly, so without fanfare, as if “of course we’re doing this… didn’t you know? You should have known.” Just a lovely little tweet out to the people who care about the software. And the hell of it is, when they assured me that they would not go SaaS back in April 2016 (a little more than a year ago, for those keeping track), according to their long-winded rationalization of why they’re doing this, they said that going SaaS had been talked about in the company ”for over two years now”. So clearly, the company as a whole are at least a minor nest of bullshit artists.
And it’s amazing to me just how the Apple community echo chamber reacts to these things. For example:
- Federico Viticci “didn’t think about it twice” and simply subscribed.
- David Sparks now feels he is “over it” meaning this whole subscription backlash business, and simply paid.
- John Gruber “fully supports their decision”.
No one points out that this was poorly done, or that maybe it even was a bad idea. Remember back when I said I bought a Mac partly because it was an awesome platform? Another bit of that awesome was the community. A tight-knit collection of people who are passionate about the Mac. Knowledgeable, friendly, intelligent, worth listening to. I will never, ever be a part of that elite golden circle of Mac user royalty; no one will ever retweet or talk about this blog entry just because I wrote it, because I have no street cred where the Apple Nerd Royalty is concerned. I’m not even the smallest blip on the radar. But, I bet I’m as much if not more an Apple nerd as the lot of them. I follow news and podcasts and interest myself in the workings of Apple. I love my tools, and I love to talk about them and use them. I care what’s happening in the community, and what I see with this subscription trend is just no damned good. I want this Ulysses shit show to fail just so there’s another example out there where going SaaS isn’t the offhanded, “of course” next move of software companies. No matter what your Apple echo chamber of advocates say, it’s the customers that matter, and thankfully, looking at the twitter feeds and blog posts these last two days, more people are upset than are supportive. Maybe it’ll kick them in the nuts hard enough to get their head out of their ass. Maybe other companies won’t go down this route.
Companies who make software are losing touch with the fact that the reason they have a company at all is because they have customers. Considering this is your primary and often only line of income, you’d think that not pissing these folks off is in your best interest. But I can tell you, having seen this transition go down a few times now, you are absolutely not making your customers happy, and this is not something most people are “over”. You all sit there in your bubbles thinking “well, it’ll be a hard transition, but we’ll come through it, and then it’ll be fine”. And you’ve got the Apple elite out there in the Twitterverse offering words of encouragement and trying to get the lowly Apple enthusiasts and users like myself to rethink their outrage. So yeah, it’ll be good.
Well, you know what? It’s not good. In addition to the sheer rage and betrayal, I have read a number of tweets and comments that say something interesting that I hadn’t thought of before, but that I feel is probably true:
I have also seen a note somewhere on the ’net where a person said this effectively moves thinking about Ulysses from “I want” to “I need”, and that’s a much harder place to succeed. I think they both come to the same point.
So far, in my world of listed applications that have gone SaaS much to my dismay, the only one I’ve subscribed to is TextExpander. I did this because:
- It effectively stopped working for iOS for me.
- It is an app that makes using my devices a hell of a lot easier, and had proven its worth to me–not in price, but in what it offers me as a user.
- I was able to secure the lifetime 50% off fee, which makes it less than $2 a month.
The thing is, I remember a day where I used to tell people about TextExpander. I used to say if they had a Mac and didn’t have it, then they were hamstrung on their Macs. I kept up with the company and engaged with people who also liked the software. When my friends were down, I’d show them how cool it was when I needed to get something written how great a help TextExpander was. It was joyful.
Now it’s more like a horrible stain on the carpet that you have to live with because you can’t afford a new carpet. You chalk it up, you hope no one notices it, and if the chance ever comes for you to get rid of it, you’re going to take it. Every time I’m asked about TextExpander by someone who sees it, I always have to condition it with, “yeah, it’s cool.. but you need to cough up a subscription for it” which is usually met with eye-rolling and an immediate dismissal of any consideration of purchase. I honestly think that people are far more likely to buy something than to rent it. TextExpander isn’t a cool thing about owning a Mac anymore–it’s just a necessary evil that I engage in because I need it. Kinda like root canal, or a toilet plunger. I don’t follow them on Twitter anymore, and whenever I get an email, it’s just met with a feeling of ‘meh’. Typically, just an offer I toss in the trash.
As a company, Smile went from having a happy evangelist to someone who is just giving them money. And I guess from their perspective, that’s what it’s all about. And I guess it’s the same for all the rest of them too. It seems to be the way of the world right now that people, and their feelings, matter far less than the almighty buck. To run with the ecosystem, you now not only need to cough up the premium price for the hardware and operating system to Apple, you need to have the money to subscribe to everything that’s great about it. Don’t have the money? Too bad–go over there with the other plebeians, we don’t give a shit about you or your opinions, we want your money.
In the case of Ulysses, it’s even worse. They didn’t do a damned thing the others did to acknowledge such a transition is hard. In fact, they even made the “deal” they offered of a 50% lifetime discount (which we learned later wasn’t lifetime after all, but only the first year) decrease down to 25%:1
And to top it all, they removed the non-SaaS apps from the app store, effectively making it impossible for users to change devices and keep using the software. They are, however slowly, forcing people to upgrade or to leave. No spoonful of sugar, no maintaining the older versions for those still using them as a token of goodwill, no lifetime deal (at least not one that makes any real difference) and no acknowledgement that the damned reason you’re here is because you made a great product that people bought. You are forgetting the people, and that makes people upset. If ever there was a company that just stuck a great big middle finger up at its faithful established user base, it’s The Soulmen.
Soulmen aside, this whole move to SaaS by people is just making the Mac a less joyful place. And it makes me sad to see it. You guys, you’re goddamned ruining it for everyone.
I suppose I should give a little nod to what I think they should do, if not SaaS. I don’t have a great answer because I am not an independent developer. All I can truly speak of is as a consumer. But I think that for people that make apps like Ulysses, the answer is more about diversification. Ulysses is goddamned great. Robust, a joy to use. People aren’t clamouring for all the “great things you’ve got coming” whatever the hell that is. It’s a text editor, and it does just fine. I know this, believe me. So how about you move Ulysses to a place where it just gets necessary updates and the occasional thing and then release a paid update whenever you get it and move the bulk of your efforts to something else? You guys have a shit ton of talent. Show us something else we can’t live without. Sell that. Then you have two products and not everything is on Ulysses. Or maybe let us buy the thing outright and charge a small Marco-like subscription to keep the updates coming until you can get another paid upgrade out the door. Just get me down to oil changes and service, as it were. But make it optional. Put your damned customers first.
All that has been going through my head for days now. I doubt a single person read it. But maybe now, I can just chalk it up and move on. I wrote this in Byword. First time in years. That’s where I was before Ulysses came along, and lookie, it’s still here, still for sale, not rent, and still pretty damned good. That pleases the part of me that thinks of my dad. If I make jam, I don’t rent the jar I put it in. I don’t want to lose something just because I can’t support an ongoing payment someday. I want to own what I buy.
And I’m not alone. Looking at the response to this latest event, not by a long shot.
- It’s come to my attention that I was wrong, and The Soulmen didn’t decrease the original offer, they had in fact never intended the offer to be 50%, rather for the monthly offer to be 50% and the annual offer to be 25%. Apparently, I’m not the only one to be confused by this. Still and all, a 25% discount for all your faithful users for a year is shameful. Maybe you can at least go down to 50% like Smile did once it becomes clear how profoundly you’ve messed this up. ↩