Home Workflow Subscriptions: Ulysses joins the growing band of drip-feeders

Subscriptions: Ulysses joins the growing band of drip-feeders

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Yesterday I was mildly upset to find that my favourite writing tool, Ulysses, is moving from a single purchase to a subscription model of financing. In future, it seems, there will be a $4.99 month charge to use the both the iOS and MacOS versions of the package. It is yet another favourite software package to adopt the drip-feed approach that is beginning to irritate me. Whatever the many good reasons for ensuring your best apps continued to be supported, the growing number of subscriptions is a worry.

  Ulysses is a great plain-text writing and organisational tool for short articles and longer texts. It can even handle your next novel. But do you want to pay a monthly subscription of .99 or will you choose a free alternative?
Ulysses is a great plain-text writing and organisational tool for short articles and longer texts. It can even handle your next novel. But do you want to pay a monthly subscription of $4.99 or will you choose a free alternative?

I can understand why software developers are moving from a one-off purchase to a monthly subscription. In the case of Ulysses, the developers are saying that they need the regular income to fund more frequent updates and added features.

Sometimes, though, software packages that do one thing well (plain-text editing and organisation of drafts in the case of Ulysses), become bloated and end up trying to do too many things. Somehow, the developers feel a constant need to justify the monthly stipend. Evernote was an outstanding example of this; it grew too big for its boots and ended up as a jack of all trades, master of none. It’s then that I get the temptation to find a simpler application that concentrates on the basics: One that, with luck, will be free.

Once upon a time all software was sold directly by the developers for a one-off price. Originally the package came in physical form — floppy disks and, later, CDs — but eventually downloading offered a more instant, and more convenient, fix. Occasionally, every few years, there would appear an updated version and existing users would be offered a very attractive upgrade price. 

Culprit

All this has changed over recent years and the culprit is Apple and the app-store model. There is now no way for developers to offer an upgrader discount via the app store. Some users, including me, continue to buy some packages direct from developers and take advantage of the upgrade offers — but this has to be done outside the app store. In some cases, there is a definite advantage to buying direct since, quite often, software packages sold through the app store are hobbled to comply with Apple’s stringent sandboxing rules. The version bought direct from the developer can sometimes dig a little deeper and offer a few more features. 

Developers using the app store have a dilemma. Sell once and keep on selling to new users in order to fund development. Or sell on subscription (something which Apple permitted a couple of years ago from memory). The odd £2.99 a month here, £1.99 there seems reasonable when looked at in isolation. But so many developers are now changing to the subscription model that most of us have no idea how much we are paying out over the year. If we add in subscriptions for services, rather than software alone, the figure grows mightily. Apple Music, £9.99 a month, iCloud, £2.99, Netflix, £5.99 — the list is growing. 

  Perhaps I should return to a good old faithful plain-text editor such as Byword which costs only .99 for the MacOS version? I already own it, which is a bonus, and, as yet, no subscription to pay. Is it, though, only a matter of time before all developers adopt the subscription model?
Perhaps I should return to a good old faithful plain-text editor such as Byword which costs only $11.99 for the MacOS version? I already own it, which is a bonus, and, as yet, no subscription to pay. Is it, though, only a matter of time before all developers adopt the subscription model?

Nevertheless, there can be some advantages to the subscription model in that you get a chance to try for a couple of months at £4.99 what you might have to pay £49.99 for as a direct purchase. Most packages used to offer a one-month free trial, which helped to some extent, but more new users could well be attracted by the possibility of a few months’ trial at a relatively low subscription price. Tech writer Dr.Drang, although not a Ulysses user, has added useful insight into the discussion.

Since I have a weakness for writing apps, arriving at Ulysses entailed a long journey of purchasing (mostly very cheap) apps and then discarding the unwanted. I might have been better served by subscribing to all these apps for a month or two and then cancelling the ones I didn’t like. As it is, I own more of them than you can shake a stick at.

In some ways, though, the sudden announcement by Ulysses has been a wakeup call for me. Do I really need so many different subscriptions? Could I, for instance, find one application that does the work of several specialist packages such as Ulysses? Or could I live, for instance, with free writing apps such as Apple Pages or, even, the surprisingly competent Text Edit?

How much is that subscription in the spreadsheet?

Prompted by this latest news, I am working on a spreadsheet to see just how much I spend on subscriptions in the course of a year. I will no doubt be shocked; the total will certainly be high enough to force some rethinking. I can think of several subscriptions I can cancel right now. And could I continue working with my already purchased copies of Ulysses without paying a sub for the new updatable model? I don’t use all the facilities in Ulysses as it is and I could probably manage if it were never upgraded except to cope with changes in Apple’s MacOS (but, of course, this is the big breaking point if there is no continuing support, the application simply stops working). Alternatively, could I be happy with one of the other plain-text editors that support Markdown — Editorial, Byword, Writing Kit, Plain Text? The significant aspect is that I am very happy with Ulysses and haven’t been looking around. Now I am looking and it is perhaps a very good thing to keep one’s options open. 

Are you getting overwhelmed with the number of monthly and annual subscriptions you are being asked to pay? Would you sooner pay a larger one-off price, as in the old days, and not have to worry about the slow drip-drip from your bank account?

As far as I can see, Ulysses GmbH, the Leipzig-based developers of the eponymous package have quoted only a US dollar price of $4.99 a month. Existing users are being offered a life-time 50% discount on this, so $2.49 (or perhaps £1.90) a month is relatively attractive. Yet it still requires thought, particularly when added to all the other £1.90s in that spreadsheet.

Postscript: When I opened Ulysses this morning (August 12) I was prompted to download the subscription model from the App Store. I did this, expecting to sign up for a few months at around £1.90 per month. Instead I discovered that this 50% discount is available only on a one-year subscription of £26.99. I have paid this, simply because Ulysses is an integral part of my workflow and because the other (free) apps I tested yesterday are all wanting in one respect or another. My second choice, Editorial, is an excellent iOS application but has no sister MacOS app; it is therefore useless for me. This has left a rather bad taste in my mouth and I will make it my business to look for a Ulysses replacement before the in-app subscription becomes due again next year.  

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18 COMMENTS

  1. I recently commented that "Finder" is your man. If I remember, that is "Explorer" in Windoze?

    I stand by that, I also use TextEdit/Pages for writing and then I frequently convert to PDF when finished.

    Iridient Developer/Preview does almost everything else when it comes to photography, VLC covers video and some audio, the rest of the audio is handled by Linn Kazoo.

    My feeling is that both Windows and MacOS are so bloated already that one might just as well use their core services as a preference, and only step off of the precipice when there is something that those programs do not handle. Mind you, that largesse does not extend to iTunes, QuickTime or Photos all of which I loathe and beyond necessity, barely use.

    Indeed Linn has just dismayed me by putting their Kazoo App onto the dreaded App Store with a completely new, un-configurable interface and every day I get a message asking me to update. I expect that I will be looking for another application that will work without the annoying messages soon.

    This is a bit like the difference between an all singing/dancing DSLR and a Leica M2. With the latter, one gets used to devising ruses and strategies to overcome its shortcomings but is otherwise unchanging.

    Oh and I can now delete my copy of Ulysses that has sat in "downloads" since the last time that you wrote about it Mike, I honestly kept meaning to give it a try. Perhaps you are right, the best programs are sold by the guys that don’t join the app store, more difficult to locate, but sometimes more worthwhile. XLD/VLC/Iridient Developer/HandBrake/FireFox/Audacity all come that way.

    • Hi Stephen – Handbrake was, and probably still is excellent. However I used to use it for compressing films off DVD’s in MP4 for watching on the mac, ps vita, phone etc.. but a few iterations of OSX back they locked out the package that I used to use for bypassing the security on DVD’s. Since then sadly I cannot transfer any of my DVD’s, and have been unable to find a package that can all me to bypass the DVD security.

      Any suggestions?

      Dave

      • Hi Dave, I have to say that it is a very long time since I used Handbrake, I just stopped using the silver disk as soon as I could, and I was never a collector of video content anyway. In essence, I was unaware of the problems you describe, I chose it when making my list (above) from a visual scan of the applications folder.

        A quick scan of the webs suggest that there are a number of off app store applications should solve your problem, also might be worth looking at other GNU type stuff too. I saw this one "MacX DVD Ripper Pro", I know nothing about it though.

        Stephen

  2. Hi Mike,

    For my writing I use Scrivener – at present it is only available in a one of payment format, and I haven’t noticed anything about monthly subscription services.

    I also don’t subscribe to the monthly payment regime of Microsoft Office – but I know many that do.. I bought 2016 office for my mac as a standalone product..

    If either parties force me, then pages it is.. or write in pages, convert to word, email to work and then reformat in my lunch hour in Office.. – and email home, or post from their.. oops maybe shouldn’t have mentioned it..

    Dave

    • Dave, I also own Scrivener and enjoyed it for longer and more complex drafts. I find Ulysses is better for my use (mainly writing blog posts). Eventually, I suspect, all developers will seek to go to the subscription model and the result will be to make us all a lot discerning. As you imply, it is possible to do much of our written work in a free application such as Pages (or, even, the underrated Text Edit) and, faced with endless subscriptions, that is what many of us will end up doing.

      • I also remember a free openware (shareware) package called open office that I used before I owned a Mac. Not sure if it still exists, but reckon that will make a come back if this business model is chosen by the bigger software publishing houses, and we all naturally abandon their products.

        After all other gaming platforms have seen the micro transaction world creeping over them for the last few years, and split platform payment systems. None of which seem to work well. I know of whole games that have almost died on these business models, so in theory it could happen to some of our favourite franchises if this is the route they all take.

        Scrivener is my platform of choice for my book exploits, and I have used it for shorter works, and found it fairly sensible and easy to do – plus you can pull it to anther platform if you need to tidy up a little post production.

        • I believe Open Office is still available. I like Ulysses because the output can be pasted straight into Macfilos without losing the HTML formatting, mainly relating to the many links I’ve inserted et drafting stage. But there must be free alternatives.

        • OpenOffice still is alive and kicking. I use LibreOffice for Mac, one derivative of OO and I am happy with it. It works nice even in a Windows and MS Office dominated environment that I have to face at work. It is for free, but every now and then I donate some money to the guy who are doing a great job. Who needs MS Office? 😉

  3. You were mildly upset? I was flippin’ furious! Just a month ago I blew £68 on both versions (Mac and iOS) thinking that I’d finally found the right package that was worth a substantial commitment. And yesterday I received the same email, telling me that it was now completely unsupported, and inviting me to abandon it in favour of a monthly subscription model. I felt like a bit of a lemon a month ago for spending so much on a text editor, but now they’re really making a fool of me. I’ll continue to use the version I bought until a MacOS update breaks it, but Ulysses will not see another penny from me.

    I share your concern about the ramping up of those monthly costs. I can see me divesting very soon, and following StephenJ’s model instead. I think I’d rather own a Bic than rent a Montblanc.

    • There is a reduced offer for such as you, I believe. It’s worth checking to see if your purchase comes within the time limit. I agree it is annoying. When I think of it like that I, also, have spend £68 and now they want a monthly sub. Like you I could wait until the present version breaks but then I wouldn’t be able to take up the half-price-for-life offer. I will probably subscribe but I have already started looking round for an alternative. Unfortunately none of the apps I own does as well as Ulysses and, of course, what is a free app today could because a subscription app tomorrow.

  4. Try cancelling a subscription to one of these drip feeders and you have to spend half an hour online to a ‘customer service rep’, probably on some island in the Pacific, who spends most of the time trying to wear you down and to renew your subscription. It would be nice to think that a boycott of such online behaviour might work, but someone somewhere will always break down and feel that they have to have whatever it is and then they are followed by many others. I might add that I am not particularly a fan of trade unions or organised protest. The question that keeps running through my mind is, how did we survive before we had all of these things? Stephen’s reference to the Leica M2 is very apt. It does exactly what you tell it to do and it does not have its hand into your trouser pocket unlike today’s wonderful electronic products. There was a better way, once.

    William

    PS The High Street is no better with its raging ‘upsell’ policy. When have you last bought a piece of consumer electronics without some youth trying to sell you a 3 year ‘customer care plan’ to go with it?

    • Wiliam,

      In fairness to Ulysses, the subscription is an in-app purchase which means it is handled by Apple. It is therefore easy to cancel at any time before the renewal date. I agree with Mark Moore, though, the Ulysses subscription is too expensive for what you get. As he says, it is tantamount to buying the app over again every six months. Worse, the special "half-price" offer to existing users is available only if you pay a year in advance (£26.99). I’ve done this, but not with any good grace, simply because Ulysses is an integral part of my workflow and I haven’t immediately got a better hole to go to. By next year I might have found an alternative, so goodbye Ulysses.

      • The net question is, do you actually ‘need’ this thing? ‘Needing’ this in a situation with one supplier is nearly inviting the supplier to jack up prices and automate payment methods. This has already happened with other near monopoly suppliers such as Adobe. The only thing that might change their view is if people said no to their offer in sufficiently large numbers. We both know that this will not happen, of course.

        William

  5. Well, that is really terrible. I just bought Ulysses for blog writing and was really impressed. But I refuse to use subscription software, where effectively your own hard work is effectively ransomed. I migrated away from Adobe for precisely this reason.

    Ulysses subscription price is also excessive – the subscription cost is roughly equivalent to re-buying the iOS app every six months (I do not use it other platforms). Given that most paid software typically has annual paid updates (which are optional!), one way to look at this is as a 100% price hike – with mandatory purchases and the loss of my data if I do not pay. And who knows what will happen to the subscription rates in future, or what will happen if the company disappears!

    I also do not accept their rational being the app store (much that it is a problem). There are other apps with paid upgrades (via one-off in-app purchase) that do not rely on a monthly subscription model.

  6. Hi Mike:

    Thank you for your interesting article that deals with an important as well as odd phenomenon of our time. You wrote:

    >> I can understand why software developers are moving from a one-off purchase
    >> to a monthly subscription. In the case of Ulysses, the developers are saying
    >> that they need the regular income to fund more frequent updates and added features.

    I agree that creating a steady income for the company is a reason for the subscription model. But IMHO there is another reason. The software in question apparently has reached a state that real innovations aren’t possible any more without producing bloatware. So there is no reason for the customer to buy an update any more. Adobe is a good example. Just look at Lightroom or Photoshop. What are the real innovations since CS6 (or even CS5) that really justified a paid upgrade to the latest version?

    I refuse the subscription model as long as possible, for the following reason. With it in place, innovation eventually will come to a halt. New features aren’t necessary any more. Updates are just an alibi to justify monthly user fees and won’t be significant.

    The goal simply is maximizing profits. In Adobe’s case things are especially bad, because of their gigantic marketshare. Competition apparently slept sweet and sound–just try to find an equivalent replacement for Photoshop. There is none, at least I couldn’t find one. The new paradigm in the industry? "Why spend money on r&d when a constant stream of subscription fees comes rolling in from existing projects." The other thing is gathering information about users where ever and from who ever possible–personal user information is the new gold these days, but thats another story.

    Just look for a replacement for Ulysses and don’t forget to let the guys in Leipzig know why you stop using their product you loved to use for such a long time. Hey, it is just a text editor with a few workflow additions. There are quite a numer of text editors available for the Mac, some of them even for free. I know that it is hard to leave a well known software behind (or dare I say to leave a rut?) and switch to something new. 😉

    • Frank,

      You are quite right. In any event, the Ulysses monthly subscription is excessive and they could well find this out to their cost. We will not be the only users looking for a better hole to go to. As it happens, and despite my intent, I did take out a one-year half-price sub. What wasn’t apparent before I downloaded the new version from the App Store was that the half-price offer was available only on an annual basis — so in my case £26.99. I nearly didn’t progress but decided that I would maintain the status quo at least for another year. I did a quick trawl of the seven or eight apps I bought for trial in the past. Some were free, others a few pounds. None, however, give me everything I get from Ulysses and at the moment I am too busy to risk upsetting my carefully constructed workflow. However, I have made it a task to look round for an alternative. The only problem is that if I do find a suitable application to do what I want I could find that it, too, moves to the subscription pricing model within a few months. The trend is undeniable.

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