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.

Death by 1000 cups of coffee

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:

Reassurance that was bullshit

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:

My current Ulysses stats

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:

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:

Comment on the Medium Post on why they’re doing this

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

Ongoing mistreatment of existing customers

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.

  1. 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.