App subscriptions are here to stay and it's time to get over it

App Store icon
App Store icon (Image credit: iMore)

Earlier today long-time developer Tapbots released Tweetbot 6, a new update to the popular Twitter app. The app itself is a nice update, but that isn't what everyone is talking about. Instead, everyone is talking about the switch to a new subscription-based pricing model.

Here we go again.

I say again because we've been here plenty of times over the years. It happened when 1Password switched to a subscription model. Ulysses switched and upset people, as have many more. 1Password moved over to subscriptions almost four years ago and people are still whinging about it.

Four. Years. Later.

For context, Tweetbot 6 costs $0.99 per month or $5.99 per year. We're not talking about the I am Rich app here.

So why are developers doing away with paid-for apps and switching to subscriptions? Because if they don't, they won't be able to make apps anymore. Because people don't buy apps.

This all stems from the infamous App Store race to the bottom that saw apps start out at a reasonable $9.99 or so and then work their way down to free because people didn't see any value in them.

But developers needed to make money – devs have to eat like the rest of us. So do their kids, too. That's where in-app purchases began to take hold. But that doesn't really work for an app like Tweetbot. Or 1Password, for that matter. So what's a developer to do?

Tweetbot 6 Header

Tweetbot 6 Header (Image credit: Tapbots)

Trying to find a way to ensure they have a source of recurring revenue, app developers turned to charging small fees monthly or annually. Releasing a new app every year and charging upfront didn't work because, you guessed it, people wouldn't pay. Maybe they'd pay smaller amounts of money monthly, with those who are willing to pay able to do so annually instead.

Ignoring the fact that developers need to feed themselves, subscription-based income helps us, too. Apps go away when developers have to cast them aside and work for The Man so they can earn a living. If Tweetbot went away, I'd be sad, so giving Tapbots $5.99 per year for an app I use (too much) every day is a no-brainer for me.

Apps not going away means they get updates, too. They get to take advantage of new iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, tvOS, and macOS features when they're announced. Developers don't have to decide whether to sink time into an app that isn't earning them any revenue in the hope it might do at some point six months down the line.

People love to complain about subscriptions in apps. They seem to think they're being ripped off because they're paying for something they're using. It's the same stance that led to great indy developers having to take jobs in other companies, taking their apps with them. It's led to countless other apps being abandoned, drifting on the App Store like unloved zombies, because they weren't viable. And that's just... sad. It's sad for the App Store, it's sad for developers, and it's sad for us.

Because without the apps we all use on these $1,000 iPhones, what are they really?

Motorola Rokr phones. That's what.

Oliver Haslam

Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too.

Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.

  • No. Never. Continuous milking. Plus, if every bloody app wants a dollar a month, and most want a **** ton more, we come up to hundreds a year. Let’s say Netflix gets a 150, Microsoft wants another 120, some bloody calendar app wants 60 or even 120. It’s out of control and soon people will pay rent and apps in the same amount. Whole thing wasn’t invented by poor parent developers but by Microsoft and likes that decided they could get 120 a year for office instead of letting people be happy with office 2000 for next 3 decades. It’s greed.
  • I used to resent app subscriptions, but I’ve changed my mind. To me, the biggest advantage of app subscriptions is that it gives the developer a reason to continue to pay attention to the app. Otherwise, the developer eventually stops making much money on it, discontinues support, and then eventually an OS upgrade makes the app unusable. That doesn’t mean that I always embrace them. I used to upgrade my Photoshop app every few years, but after Adobe went subscription, it just wasn’t worth it to me any more. I also quit using Quicken for the same reason (the continual upgrades, and the fact that I grew to disklike their app).
  • I get paying devs, but notifications should never be in a paid tier.
  • I hear what you’re saying, but developers have to also realize that consumers are getting tired of being nickel and dimed to death. We’re renting everything and owning nothing. For every good developer who uses subscription income to support and improve their apps, how many draw users into subscribing and hope that they forget about it. Not every app needs subscriptions. If you use an app every day and it makes you more productive or makes you money, then maybe. I don’t think I should have to remember to turn subscriptions off and on for apps that I use occasionally, for a short time, or even once.
  • To say people don't by apps is not telling the entire story. People initially didn't want to buy apps because they were led to believe that apps weren't fully functioning applications/software programs that were found on platforms prior or desktop computers. By the time apps got better it was too late as Apple's App Store policies pushed apps to be free, offered no upgrade paths (and still don't to this very day) and nothing should cost more than $0.99 cents. There were lots of apps that were worth their pricing but as with all things the people who want prime rib but are on a McDonald's Happy Meal budget were the loudest. Subscriptions finally came along and developers saw it as another way for recurring revenue and some simply as another way to nickel and dime customers out of their money as many did with in-app purchases. Some software is fine as a subscription model (Netflix, Apple Music, Spotify are perfect examples) while others just don't make sense (a calculator, password or word processing app for example). 1Password went to a subscription model but like many others they did so in a bad way. Customers got cut-off from parts of the app that they shouldn't have. They should have just simply offered new and meaningful features under the subscription model as an incentive, not as a way to lock people out of what they were already using as a one-time purchase. So one by one every developer seems to be turning to the subscription model using the same reasoning. But, when you look at many of these apps you can clearly see that their reasoning just doesn't hold up. If developers aren't making enough money from one-time purchases they probably aren't going to make enough from subscriptions either. You aren't going to get more customers by saying it's just $0.99 cents/mo or $5.99/yr as you are clearly trying to squeeze more money out of an individual who didn't want to pay the entire amount in the first place. As far as upgrades those are hard and becomes even harder as an app matures because at some point you more than likely get stuck in maintenance and OS compatibility mode. When that happens I think it's time to start a new software project for continued revenue if that's what you are in for. We all have to eat and I get it but charging someone monthly versus letting them upgrade when they want to is forcing your customer to chose between them and you and that's never a good place to be and in the long run you are at the losing end. In the end every app does not need to be a subscription so yes this debate will continue and people aren't getting over it. The idea that apps will go away without subscriptions will just preposterous. What needs to happen is for developers to be able to charge a reasonable price for their apps and proper app upgrades which will only happen if app stores stop fostering the notion of free and $0.99 cent apps just to have the most on their given platform. At the same time developers need to offer more than a fresh coating of paint on their apps and calling it new which I have seen way to many times. There's more but I will stop here. This editorial just seemed to sugar coat everything when there was a lot more to it than the simple rush to the bottom and develops just needing to keep the lights on at the end of the day.
  • I completely understand the subscription model and I get why devs have to do it. My problem is when the cost doesn't match the service received. Fantastical for example was already a pricey app, to begin with. Flexbits switched to a subscription model and released the "all-new Fantastical 3". However, outside of syncing, there is nothing new about it. The supposed new features do not justify the price. Not to mention those who already paid for the app initially now have to upgrade to get marginal benefits. I mean c'mon I was shocked that apple reminders finally added nested reminders so I thought surely flexbits would have it but nope. At this point, you are better off using Apple Reminders than some of these paid apps. I think that this is part of Apple's grand scheme of things. They provide subpar apps initially like reminders for example so that everyone goes out and buys a third-party app that does it better because they get a piece of that action too at 30%. Now once that revenue begins to dry they then come out with a better stock version of said app. This does not let the devs off the hook though. 2do, Enpass, did something that I think the rest should have followed and that was switch to subscription models however if you were an early purchaser then you are excluded from that tier. As a reward for your early investment which is what allowed them to build on their app, you don't have to pay a monthly fee. Now if there is some great new feature then that is a different story but greed is greed no matter how you put it and that's what things are starting to look like.
  • RIP Fantastical, 1Password, and now Tweetbot - all deleted from my iPhone with updates blocked. They will not be missed.
  • "No. Never. Continuous Milking" indeed! I understand that Apple breaks apps every year and offloads a lot of work onto developers just to keep their apps working with a new iOS release, but subscriptions are not the solution to this problem. App subscriptions are poison. Nobody says "gee, I wish I had to pay a monthly App bill." It's obnoxious and simply not scalable. It also tends to be a poor value. Apple Arcade charges $60/year for 145 games, which works out to less than 50 cents/year per game, for 5 family members, but something like 1Password wants $36/year per user for a single app. If an app goes subscription and its name isn't "Netflix" I simply delete it and switch to something else.
  • "Releasing a new app every year and charging upfront didn't work because, you guessed it, people wouldn't pay" Why should people pay for something if they don't think it is worth it? It also seems strange to imagine that anyone who didn't see the value in upgrades would suddenly be excited to pay for a subscription. I certainly wouldn't be.
  • If people don’t think paying for an App subscription is worth it then why are they still using the App they don’t find any worth in? In the early days most software was free because of the nerd ethic. Then Bill Gates wrote his famous letter stating that software was just like any other product and should be sold.
  • I think most apps developers will moving to subscription model if they want to continue developing apps and stay on the Apps Store . I am ios developer and publisher from 2012 . I make live from earning revenue by publishing apps in the store . It was easier before to sell paid apps for one time fee $ 1.99 or $ 3.99 but as apps increased a lot and there are too many apps free with ads or in app purchase it’s become harder to make live from one time paid apps . Many users doesn’t want to pay any thing , and even $ 4.99 one time fee for paid apps they think its expensive .we spend a lot of money and time to develop apps , then many users want these apps for free , and some of them complain about ads , the free apps with ads is not enough to make revenue , it will generate few amount of money maybe less than $ 1 daily if you don’t have huge amount of users maybe you will need millions of users to generate good amount from ads . So what we can do ? There are few numbers of users are willing to pay for apps . But this is not enough to making live if we sell the apps for one time only fees $ 1.99 or $ 3.99 . So the only way we have to continue making apps is by moving to subscription apps model , so we can milk the few users who are willing to pay monthly or yearly subscription fees . We will offer full app with all features and without ads for these premium users , and for those who want everything for free , they will only get basic functionality app with ads !
  • Subscriptions taught me that I didn't need the paid app. Evernote cost too much and taught me that apple notes works just fine. Apple mail, calendar and reminders all work without an extra fee. I have no issue buying an app and then buying the next version when features I want are introduced. Photoshop was amazing but Affinity Photo is just as amazing and I don't have to keep paying to use it. Serif, PLEASE create a Lightroom replacement so I can stop using Capture One.
  • I think that App subscriptions are a phase, and no I will not get over it. In fact, I have ZERO subscription apps and will not use them. I will gladly pay a higher price upfront and then when a new version comes out, decide on my own terms whether the new version is worth it. I'm sorry but it's not my fault that developers undervalued their own work to begin with and then never cut back their expenses that supported their own undervaluation. The only way to fix this mess is many of these developers will either have to go out of business or actually deliver enough value to keep their business solvent.
  • Very good points. Very well stated.
  • Nope. No subscriptions here. Never will. App subscriptions suck and its time for devs to get over it. Renting is for fools. Yes, we all rent an apartment when we first move out of our parents' house. Because we were young, poor and stupid. The very definition of foolish. But eventually, you grow up and buy a house. I do not rent TVs, washing machines or microwave ovens. I am NOT going to rent software. I will gladly buy it. I will upgrade it when I decide I need to.
  • My 2 cents won’t mean much. Bottom line, I don’t like it but I understand. Instead of going all in or all out on subscriptions, it’s made me pick and choose what is important. I sold myself on apps like Day One’s subscription even though I paid for it up front years ago, yet I really don’t use it so it will not be renewed next time. I got into Carrot Weather and now pay for the highest tier because I obsess over weather so it’s worth it. 1Password is essential for my home business so it gets paid yearly. I currently pay for Apple Music for families but four of my five family members don’t really use it so I’m deciding what to do. The oldest child is the primary user so I think I’m going to make her pay for herself and the rest of us will move on without it. At least good apps with fair subscriptions don’t subject us to advertising. Before I cut the cord, I never could understand paying for cable and yet still having to sit through 15 minutes of commercials for every 45 minutes of TV. I gladly pay Netflix to not worry about that.
  • Yeah... no. None of these apps have anything that their free counterparts don’t that would make me feel the need to oh monthly for something like tweetbot.
  • For me it depends on the app and what it offers me. I would pay $6 for this app if I used the cesspool that is Twitter but I don't. I do pay for a 1password subscription because the app benefits me greatly. I don't mind paying because I want the developer to make a living so they continue keeping the app updated with features and/or security updates. Some apps are just too expensive for what they offer. Carrot Weather is a prime example.
  • Just like anything else, reward those that provide value and do the subscription thing right and don't reward everyone else with your money. No reason to be mad. If you don't like it, don't pay for it. We all have to pick and choose what we spend our money on. I would rather have to choose from apps that get updates and provide more value than to have more apps with no updates and diminishing value because the developer can't afford to keep up with the app or just stops caring.
  • I disagree with this post, even though I like the site, developers should have both at least trial and a one time payment option. Period.
  • What is the "alternative"? Paying a one-time price of $20, $30, or even $50 to purchase an application, just like software was priced years ago, and then receive all updates for that software for free for a number of years, or forever? Personally I much prefer that model than a never-ending subscription fee for each one of the dozens of apps I currently have on my phone. I always thought charging $.99 for an app was ridiculous. Charge what an app is worth, recoup your investment of time and resources instead of a mere pittance.