We live in a changing world. One which sees consumers increasingly paying for services and products on a periodic subscription basis. There’s Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Sky TV, Apple Music, Kindle Unlimited, NFL, Hulu, HBO and so on. Microsoft’s Office 365 and Adobe’s Photoshop brand are perhaps the most well known software products to charge users on a subscription basis. But others, such as the Day One journaling app and Agile Bits’ 1Password app, have made the change to a subscription based pricing model too.
Recently the Mac and iOS writing app, Ulysses also made the switch to subscriptions. What followed was a mixed response, but mainly comprising of outrage, fevered criticism, and in some cases downright hatred towards the developer of Ulysses. There were some who embraced the change, but their voices are being drowned out by the dissent.
Now, it has to be said, I’m not a huge fan of subscription based services. I don’t have Netflix, I use Microsoft Office, but chose not to go down the subscription route. I use photo editing software for my blog, but wouldn’t pay a monthly subscription to use Photoshop, choosing instead to use Affinity Photo. Which by the way is a superb piece of software.
However, despite my general views on subscriptions, I wasted no time in signing up to one for Ulysses. Why? Well that’s the subject of this post. Why are we happy to pay for some things on subscription and not others? What makes Netflix worthy of one person’s money and not Ulysses?
I believe the answer lies in the value someone places on a particular service or product.
According to a quick Google search Value is:
- the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.
- principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life.
- estimate the monetary worth of.
- consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial; have a high opinion of.
I’ve seen a lot of opinions on Twitter and read the App Store reviews of Ulysses following the move to subscriptions. The negative ones read something like this:
- “Ulysses just isn’t worth the money needed for a subscription.”
- “Ulysses is more style than substance.”
- “App X is better anyway.”
- “Greedy developers/ Untrustworthy developers.”
- “But I’ve already paid for the app and now they’re going to price me out from future updates.”
- “I’m switching to app X because they don’t charge a subscription.”
- “I love Ulysses but the subscription fees are just too much.”
It’s quite clear that these users have taken issue with being asked to subscribe to Ulysses. None of them attach a high enough regard, or place a high enough value on Ulysses, or its developer, to allow them to accept the principle of paying a subscription.
But is this fair? Well that depends. Value is an extremely subjective thing. While one thing has great value for one person, the next may attach little or no value to that same thing. However, I still think it’s worth exploring this concept a little further, so please bear with me here. I’m going to analyse Ulysses in terms of two broad headings
- Ulysses’ features and its competition
- Ulysses’ value and its future
In doing so I hope to uncover some of the psychology of what’s going on here. What marketers call The Psychology of Value.
Features and competition
I’ve written many times about how much I value Ulysses’ features, but what I’m really saying is how much I value its features over any other writing app available for my chosen platforms (Mac and iOS). You see, not all writing apps are made equal. If they were I would have no reason to stick with Ulysses. If all writing apps provided the same features in exactly the same way, then price differentials would be the only factor I would make my choices on. I’d migrate to the cheapest app every time prices went up. Simple right? Well, not really, no market works this way, but let’s start to understand why Ulysses stands out for me, why I value it over other writing apps.
Here’s just a handful of the apps that Ulysses has as competition (all are available for Mac and iOS, just like Ulysses):
Bear and IAWriter
I write blog posts (short form writing) and also novels (long form writing) in Ulysses. Which, for me, immediately discounts Bear and IAWriter as viable alternatives to Ulysses. While these are great apps in their own right I just don’t feel they are capable of handling the full workflow of a 100,000 word novel effectively and efficiently. That isn’t what they are built for. Ulysses has sheets, groups, filters, keywords, project goals, as well as the ability to bring in notes, pictures and research material. It can export in a number of different, fully customisable formats for reviewing my work prior to edits and rewrites. Ulysses uses MarkdownXL (its own tweaked version of Markdown), which allows for inline commenting and non destructive deletions, which are invaluable during the revision phase.
I’ve used Scrivener and it’s a great app. In fact it converted me to the Mac. I wanted to write and Scrivener wasn’t available on the Windows platform back then. At the time I valued what Scrivener had on offer, more so than the old version of Ulysses, which looked less powerful and more cluttered.
However, I’ve changed how I write and Ulysses has changed a great deal also. I now write on a desktop Mac most of the time, but also use a MacBook Pro if I’m away from home. I write on iPad sometimes and if an idea pops into my head while I’m out and about I can use my iPhone to jot down ideas or write a few paragraphs of my novel. All in Ulysses.
But all of these apps do cloud syncing, you might say. Well, yes, but ease and reliability of syncing isn’t always guaranteed. Ulysses uses a very clever, well thought out file system, that just loves to be synced. As an app it was designed from the ground up in a world where cloud services are the norm. Scrivener wasn’t. Scrivener syncs by using Dropbox but I’ve tried it briefly (between Macs and between iOS and Mac devices) and it made me nervous. The developer has done their best to implement a good sync service, but I needed to jump through some hoops to get it to work reliably. Others have claimed to have lost work when syncing. Put simply I trust Ulysses’ non hoop jumping, robust syncing to handle my work flawlessly. Which means I value it more than Scrivener.
I’ve never tried Storyist so I can’t comment on how good an app it is, but it seems to get quite good reviews. What I have noticed though is that it appears to have reached maturity in terms of its feature set. Other than maintenance releases and bug fixes there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot going on in terms of new features. This is no bad thing. The app is clearly still supported and if it does what you want it to do then you have a solid, affordable piece of software to write in.
However, for me, Storyist lacks some of the features that Ulysses has. It doesn’t use Markdown for example, which I adore using. Then there are features I see no value in having. Such as index cards and story sheets. This is exactly what some people want from their writing app, but I prefer minimal apps that have hidden, but accessible power. Once I go into full screen writing in Ulysses it’s only the words I’m focusing on, not what I see as unnecessary features.
Storyist is relatively cheap to buy. If the developer isn’t planning on adding new features any time soon, and is happy to do bug fixes mostly, then they can afford to charge a one off, relatively low price for their product, because their cost base is relatively low. If, however, as a user, you want shiny new things from your software, then Storyist may also not be for you.
Value and the future of Ulysses
The psychology of value
I hope I’ve shown why I value Ulysses so much. It just suits my writing workflow perfectly. Much better than anything else on offer. So much so that I would be willing to pay even more for a subscription to it if needed. But of course this doesn’t hold true for everyone.
I use Ulysses everyday to write. I’m using it now, sat up in bed at 6 a.m., working through final proofs for this post on my iPad. Others though may only use an app like Ulysses once a week, once a month, hardly ever. They may only use it for notes, or letters, or blog posts, not a novel. They may only use it on one device not many devices.
This means a switch to an alternative writing app may be easier for these people. I have to ask though – why would someone spend a reasonable amount of money on an app like Ulysses (I paid £34.99 on Mac, £14.99 on iOS) and not use it on a regular basis? They must have seen value in using this software when they purchased it, value they may no longer see now it requires further subscription payments. Because of my reliance on Ulysses, I’m psychologically comfortable with the idea of paying more for it every year. Others may not be. They believe they have already paid enough for an app and are not prepared to pay again.
Ulysses is currently a mature, reliable product which has undergone significant development over the years.. Development that existing users have benefited from, in return for their one-off payment. Yet still some are not happy with what the developers have done. They still feel cheated. Why? You guessed it. It all boils down to perceived value.
With their original purchase of Ulysses, most users probably saw years of use and feature updates ahead of them as recompense for their payment. Now though things have changed. The justification for spending £34.99 and/ or £14.99 for apps has been removed for some people. But again, is this a fair assumption?
I would argue that The Soulmen have tried their best to consider their customers value needs when making this difficult business decision. I also believe this is because they are a responsible and ethical developer.
- They didn’t stop anyone from using the apps they’ve already bought. Both Mac and iOS versions have been removed from the App Store for new customers, but are still available in existing customer’s purchases on the store. Both have been updated for the upcoming Apple OS changes and are functional.
- No one is being forced to go down the subscription route.
- Existing customers have been granted lifetime discounts of 25% against annual subscriptions. A reward for loyalty and an incentive to be a part of Ulysses’ future (more on this later).
- Existing customers who purchased Ulysses in the last couple of months get a generous free use period (up to 18 months) on the new subscription version – up to a year on Mac and 6 months on iOS or combined if both versions were purchased. This seems fair to me. Customers don’t need to commit to subscriptions to access new features during the free use period, and if they wish they can revert back to the old version at no cost. Monthly subscriptions are low risk and can be cancelled and restarted at any time. If they value the new features they can continue to subscribe. If not don’t.
- The price of a subscription covers both Mac and iOS versions so if you haven’t ventured into the world of writing on your iPad or iPhone now is a great chance to do so.
- My annual subscription for both versions, discounted by 25% is £26.99. That’s roughly half what I paid up front, which equates to two years comparative use based on the old pricing model.
- If you wish to be part of Ulysses future you can sign up.
The future of Ulysses
Ulysses’ switch to subscriptions can’t have been an easy decision to make. The developers must have known they were in for a rough ride. They’ve written a detailed blog post on their website and on Medium outlining the rationale for the decision. In these posts they explain that offering one off purchase pricing is no longer a viable solution, because it’s financially unsustainable.
I’ve seen some views stating that it isn’t a customer’s responsibility to protect a company’s future. This view is naive if you want to continue to a be a customer. It is also an indicator that this particular person doesn’t ultimately value what Ulysses has to offer, because they don’t care whether the product is still around in a couple of years time or not.
If like me you value Ulysses, and can understand how The Soulmen have tried their best to offer their customers a range of options moving forward, then you might feel like subscribing. Paying a few pounds or dollars a month to support the future of a great, and for me invaluable writing app, might be reasonable for you. Especially as there will be feature updates coming.
If not then Ulysses may no longer be a viable option for any of us. For those jumping ship to seek better value elsewhere just be mindful that Ulysses is not unique here. Developing apps, delivering updates, providing support, marketing, paying tax, maintaining servers, licensing through the App Store, none of this comes cheap.
I can’t tell you what your value system is and whether you should attach at least some of that value to Ulysses or not. You already have the answer to that question no doubt. I just hope there are plenty of people, who like me, are more than happy to subscribe in order to see a sustainable future for this invaluable writing app.