Subscriptions: Ulysses joins the growing band of drip-feeders

Posted on by Mike Evans

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 $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. 


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 $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.