ramblings from a body of somekind

Notability and Subscription models

November 02, 2021

  • software development
  • software developer
  • ios
  • apple
  • payment methods
  • subscription model

I bought Notability back in 2018 as an app to use for my iPad as a means of taking notes. It was the second one I bought as the first one I was pretty unsatisfied with, but Notability seemed to be just fine for everyday use. Back then, this cost me £10 for the iOS version. I was so pleased with it, I spent an additional £10 on the macOS app, even though in hindsight I barely used it (only use was to dig through old notes).

This morning I’ve woken up to the news that Notability is moving from an one-off paid model to a “free” app with subscription model. Fair enough I guess, folks gotta eat. I’m probably not going to opt into the subscription model (given I went with Notability because I didn’t want to pay a subscription fee). Then I read this part of the announcement:

Current customers can continue to enjoy Notability

If you’ve previously purchased Notability, you don’t need to do anything just yet! You can continue using Notability without interruption until November 1, 2022. After the year is up, you can become an annual subscriber or use the free version of Notability.

So that’s it then. The features I spent £20 in total is now going to be thrown out in a year because of the new subscription model. In some painful attempt to appease potentially new customers, they’ve gone and thrown old customers like me under the bus. On top of that, the new yearly price of this app is $14.99/yr (or $11.99/yr for a limited time 🙄) which is very likely going to be £14.99/yr over here. That’s an increase in the price as well as removing features.

Now, to be fair, I paid that £20 back in 2018. It is now 2021, so that £20 carried me over for 3 years - will be now 4 years max with this new update. So taking the biggest estimate, it is £5 per year, which is actually pretty good value for such an app.

I have no doubt that a lot of work and hard effort went into creating this app. I have my own app in both Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store - my app is far less complex and even still it takes up free time trying to debug and fix issues constantly.

The fact that I’m doing all this work without a recurring “salary” from the app stores is a slight bitter pill to swallow, but quite frankly if I wasn’t happy with it, I should’ve went with an payment route that provided that security from the start. That decision is on me, and it’s a decision I fully own.

To be clear, I have no problems with Notability trying a different monetisation strategy for their app development (in theory). What my gripe is that in one software update, they have set a deadline on my functionality that I had previously taken as payment, without any alternative form of accessing said paid features beyond 1st November 2022.

You may be thinking to yourself “but surely there is no way to get additional funding without pivoting the app to another form of payment?” and I would disagree strongly. One of my favourite apps, Reeder has got a respectable payment model nailed down.

The developer announces a new version of Reeder (lets say Reeder 5) and then supports the app up until X years. After that development timeline is done, the app developer announces a new version (e.g. Reeder 6) with new support and updates.

The great thing about this approach is that the old versions of the app are still around on the app store for the user to download years after the new versions are released, so if the user doesn’t want to upgrade, they absolutely do not have to. Furthermore, each version is ~$5 so if you want to buy into the new version it isn’t such a steep price to pay.

I’ve talked about what Notability can do, but ultimately the problem of subscription proliferation is far more systemic than that. Anyone who is an iOS user will know that every day, more and more apps are turning towards the subscription model.

Like I said before, all it takes is one software update and the app will go from free or paid model to the subscription model. And anyone who is an app developer will know how much Apple pushes developers into a subscription/in app purchase model (Apple will give you more publicity on their App Store if you go down the subscription route).

The truth of the matter is that Apple stands to make a very big slice of profit every time an app developer adds subscription pricing. Recurring revenue is ultimately the best kind of revenue for Apple - so much so that they’ve been expanding their Software as a Service list.

This subscription mentality has perversely spread across nearly all of their services - they are even planning on getting their Podcast app on that sweet annual subscription action. I’m admittedly not a podcast person, but I thought the whole appeal of Podcasts was the fact it was essentially free to listen to?

But why should a developer care? Simply put - money. Within the first year the developer gets 70% of the money from In App Subscriptions. If the user stays on the subscription after a year, the developer gets 85% of the money. If the monthly revenue wasn’t incentive enough, eventually getting 85% of the revenue is another fat incentive for the developer.

I do think as a developer there should be better ways for Apple (and Google) to monetise. One idea is paid upgrades. Like how Reeder implements app versions, but baked into the platform itself so developers can easily make that change without having to make coding and storefront changes. As of now, there is friction with going the Reeder approach, but it isn’t impossible.

Subscription based pricing in itself isn’t exactly an issue. I’m willing to pay a subscription price to Netflix on the grounds that I frequently get new movies and TV shows on Netflix (as well as Netflix exclusives). The idea is that every month I give Netflix money for new content in their platform new each month. I accept this premise.

Another service I pay for monthly is cloud storage, as I understand that “cloud storage” is another word for storage on a server with a lot of backup and security strategies implemented. Running server costs are generally on a monthly basis, so it makes sense to charge for a monthly instead of a one-off basis. Not only that, but I know their security/backup strategies are better than my own attempts, so I’m paying for the convenience too. I accept the subscription price for this.

One final example I can give is SetApp. The idea is that you pay monthly for SetApp, and in return it will give you access to it’s growing list of software. There is quite a lot of the software given that requires annual payment. If you buy these yourself, these will have its own high annual price. The sales pitch? Why not just pay one small monthly subscription fee for all these apps?

I’m personally not sold on it because I haven’t found much value for the apps provided, but I’m sure for the right person SetApp will provide enormous amounts of value. Not only that, but it may not have sold on me now, but that might change in the future.

However, Notability’s pivot to a subscription based model is not one based on them providing value frequently. I’m sure that Notability will keep updating to provide more features, but there is only so many features a user wants in a note-taking app. It’s even more ludicrous when you realise that Notability stores your notes in your own iCloud account and not their servers, which raises the question - why on earth does it need recurring revenue when the app doesn’t have much in the way of recurring costs?

Fast Company did an article on Notability - essentially a paid advert by Notability advertising their awareness of their greed and doubling down on it. What is incredible is that they have now disabled syncing of notes to iCloud on the free version (why does this feature need to be paid?) as well as limiting functionality like saving brushes and other nonsense.

The weasel worded corporate explanation to these changes is essentially “we want more users” which probably translates into either they see more users as an opportunity to convert said users to the subscription model or collecting data on those users who they plan to sell onto data brokers for $$$ like pretty much every other “free” app out there. Given what the article says, it seems more like the former but could very easily switch to the latter given their recent behaviour.

The most damning quote in the article is right at the end:

“We want to make sure that people can’t just use Notability and make it all the way through med school for free,” Gilboy says. “That would leave us without a business.”

This is hilarious when you consider that they could’ve gone with an alternative payment model like Reeder - or even their old method - which would’ve guaranteed them some payment.

I am planning to move to another app (GoodNotes, please don’t screw things up). Even so, I have this hesitation, this concern that one day GoodNotes or some other app that I rely upon quite heavily will just go towards the subscription model and what I paid for will be made obsolete.

It’s ultimately sad that buying an app from the Apple App Store no longer means I get to keep the features I had paid for for life. One software update can make the switch that robs the features that I thought I had. With that, what incentive do I have in getting a paid app from the App Store? What is the point in handing over my money to Apple and the developers if I can no longer trust them?

This proliferation of subscriptions in apps is too much. How many apps must require a subscription before it is too much? How many apps must bleed our bank accounts on a weekly/monthly/yearly basis before it’s too much? The subscription nightmare is making me want to go back to Android, where there is less of a focus on subscriptions.

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