Subscription or buy-to-own: two software models, one aim, which is better?

Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud are now available principally (MS) or only (CC) as a subscription model. Strata3D offers both a subscription and a buy-to-own model. TypeDNA began as buy-to-own but, for new buyers, is only available as subscription. On the other hand, Apple Store applications are sold on a buy-once, can’t upgrade basis. Upgrades are either free—such as Apple’s own Logic and Final Cut software—or require buying the software all over again. On the other hand, App Store applications tend to be much cheaper to acquire. In the mean time, firms such as Quark Software Inc., persevere with the ‘old’ model of the user buying to own, and the manufacturer then having to persuade them to upgrade.

Software firms all have the same objective: profit. They are not individuals labouring on open-source for the general betterment of the human condition. At the same time, they are full of individuals who want to make the best product they can. Clearly, if the software makes no profit, it will eventually be bought up by some other company, as happened with Siri and with NIK, to be rolled into something, or simply abandoned, such as the much-lamented Macromedia Freehand.

Which is best for the industry as a whole? Which is best for the customer?

The idea that you can buy something, and a year later it will be better than when you first bought it, is something that makes no sense outside of the software industry. Fridges don’t improve with time, neither do cars, no matter what personalised upgrades you try to fit (unless it’s a Land Rover, in which case you can carry on replacing bits of it forever, but that’s an unusual case).  Art and houses may appreciate, but they don’t improve.

Traditionally, software houses offered intermediate upgrades for free, introducing minor features, and then major upgrades with a new version, which had a commensurate upgrade price attached to it. You could hop from WordPerfect to Word and back again via competitive upgrades if you wanted. We actually went from Claris Works to Microsoft Office by that route.

Some kinds of software—typically very large enterprise systems—have always been done on a lease-basis. It was Microsoft who first introduced the notion of annual payment for an always-up-to-date plan. Adobe followed suit, then various kinds of accounting software, other utilities, and so on.

Some things are clearly better if the software is automatically updated. Virus checkers and accounting packages are the most obvious. But Microsoft was facing a big problem: everybody who wanted one already owned a copy of Office, complete with the docx and xlsx format, which was the last main reason to upgrade. People were increasingly only upgrading their OS when they changed their computer, and computers were already so fast that there was no longer much reason to upgrade.

This is a far cry from the 1980s, when any computer you could possibly buy was underpowered for any reasonable task you might have wanted it for. It was WYSIWYG which had introduced this particular arms race. Until then WordPerfect, Word and WordStar for DOS were all fast enough. But WordStar had a problem: it was already feature complete, and did not add new features. Word and WordPerfect, by contrast, were busy adding features. They weren’t necessarily useful features, but they were new features. As soon as WYSIWYG came in, there was a perpetual cycle of buying a new computer that could cope with the latest software, and new software coming out to take advantage of the new computers. WordStar and its ilk which did not offer new features were left behind.

At a particular point, graphics software moved into the lead on this race. I remember my first 200 MHz computer, which was the first time you could draw with Illustrator freehand and not have to wait around for the line to appear. Photoshop was still slow.

Today, WordProcessors, Photo-editors and Illustration packages do everything we can reasonably want them to, and today’s computers do most of it instantly, as far as the 18ms minimum human reaction time is concerned.

So how do you persuade people to keep giving you money?

Subscription is clearly a good model if you are the only product in the market. The demise of WordPerfect as a serious player meant that MS Office was the only commercial show in town. Libre Office and other open source alternatives were fine for those who wanted them, but many IT departments don’t like open source software. ‘Professional services is the hidden cost in open source’, as someone once told me.

Microsoft’s problem, though, is that the only thing that it really offers is compatibility. There are hundreds of low cost word processors out there. Apple’s own office suite is a pleasanter environment for word processing. Email software does as much in the way of formatting as most people should ever need, and many documents will never make their way off email.

Recognising that it isn’t Microsoft, Adobe has gone a different route. Almost everything you could possibly want is bundled with Adobe Creative Cloud. Design, DTP, photo-editing, video, HTML editing, sound recording, RAW photo developing and cataloging. On the other hand, aside from Photoshop and Illustrator, none of these are actually the best choice for what you want to do. InDesign was a bit ahead of QuarkXPRESS for quite a long time, neck and neck for a bit, but is now clearly lagging, suffering as Quark piles on more features with every new version. Dreamweaver, of course, is Dreamweaver, but real coders prefer text editors, and everyone else is now moving onto Content Management Systems, which Dreamweaver supports only poorly, or via specialist plugins. If you don’t like FinalCut Pro, you would be far better getting Avid than Adobe Premier. Lightroom is fine, but if you are happy with Lightroom, you probably don’t need Photoshop. Lightroom itself isn’t as good a Digital Assets Manager as Media Pro, nor as good a raw developer as Capture One or DxO.

All this is great for the enthusiast market, but there are not many people who can shoot pictures, edit images, illustrate, do DTP, make videos, record sounds and edit HTML. Adobe CC pushes people towards the unproductive world of Jack of all Trades, Master of None.

Another offer that Adobe makes, and is also made by Monotype and others, is font subscriptions. Typekit, Skyfonts and so on give users access to a font library, though, quite possibly, not the library they would actually want.

The risk for users of going down the subscription route is that, one day, if they don’t, can’t or won’t keep up their subscriptions, they will no longer be able to open their own legacy documents. What is worse, if the software is eventually withdrawn, or the company goes out of business, you can’t even reactivate your subscription. You may decide that MS and Adobe are too big to go out of business—but that’s a risk you have to take.

What about buy to own?

The problem for buy-to-own software houses is that unless they can continually expand their market, they will only ever sell more software if they can come up with new features which are worth the upgrade price. All of the big features, though, have surely already been introduced. New features are likely to be more and more vertical market, and the cost of implementing them dwarfs the increased sales that they will produce. When was the last time Photoshop introduced a new feature that you actually wanted, and had not already purchased a plugin that did it? It isn’t just a question of coding. Software houses have to have creative vision to introduce new things that could never have been done before, but are useful to many users.

Photoshop essentially is a digital darkroom. The processes that are at its core have analogues in the physical dark rooms that Photoshop replaced. It’s extended now into being a camera enhancement, enabling you to make some decisions in the software that you previously had to make in camera. However, as it has moved away from the darkroom, the new features have become less groundbreaking. Illustrator is a draftsman’s desk. InDesign and QuarkXPRESS are layout artists’ drafting desks.

For a long time, software was catching up with what you could achieve physically. Now, it has surpassed it, along with camera technology. For years, I longed for a dSLR that was as responsive as my old OM 1, produced as high a resolution, and yet would fit in a coat pocket. With the Df, Nikon surpassed the OM 1 in every possible respect.

This brings us back to the problem of creative vision. When you have done everything your users expect, what do you offer next? If you can keep imagining, you can keep creating, and people will keep buying. If you can’t, they stick with the old software and expect you to provide compatibility updates for free.

The verdict on subscription versus buy-to-own

Ultimately, subscription software is a good deal for the software house, but not for the customer—unless, of course, it is the only thing that keeps the software house in business, and thus means that your software continues to be upgraded and security-patched. The longer you use it, the deeper your back-catalogue of files that require that software to open it.

By contrast, buy-to-own is good for the customer, but not for the software house unless it can figure out new, useful features that persuade people to keep buying. WordStar died on the basis of not being able to persuade new users to buy it in the face of WordPerfect and Word. Because WordStar was a standard, everything that came after could import its files. But that is exceptional. I have a lot of software scattered over old computers that died when the manufacturer withdrew it, or simply went out of business.

QuarkXPress 2016 and breaking the vicious cycle

I’ve written about QuarkXPRESS a couple of times recently. Since I joined their Facebook community a year ago, I have been deeply impressed by the company’s responsiveness to users. The software is also getting better and better, and has now left InDesign far behind, though the inertia of InDesign users will keep Adobe’s offer afloat at least for a while, in which time they will perhaps have caught up to today’s features. What is impressive about Quark, though, is not so much the new features, but the crowdsourcing approach to them. I was astonished, when I was told about the new features of QuarkXPRESS 2016, how much they reflected the wish list of the members of the group. This is more than just being responsive, this is finding inspiration in the user community. There are inevitably far more users who say ‘there should be a feature that does’ than people who could code it into a plugin or an Xtension. A thousand users, though, all voting about what features they want, presents a constant challenge to the developers to deliver. Instead of scratching round the Internet and backwards-engineering competing software, or trying to create some kind of hybrid fridge-toaster that brings in bloat ware features that are already fully covered by other software, Quark Software Inc., has been able to find the features that users really want, which nothing else does.

The other side—and this is something that should worry Adobe—is that by introducing native conversion from PDF, Quark has made anyone’s entire back catalogue of PDF files future-compatible. No InDesign to QuarkXPRESS conversion is needed, because Quark can pull in the finished PDF file without any intervening software. More than anything, this breaks the hold that subscription providers have. If you cease paying your CC subscription, you will still be able to load all your finished layouts into QuarkXPRESS. Since other software already opens and edits Photoshop and Illustrator, it may well be that Adobe has overplayed its hand.

I haven’t upgraded to Microsoft subscription, and I almost certainly won’t. I do currently subscribe to Adobe CC, but it may be my last year of doing so. Affinity has good packages that do Photoshop and Illustrator functions. Pinegrow is better for me than Dreamweaver. I abandoned Lightroom years ago for Capture One and Media Pro. If I didn’t know anything, the Adobe bundle would be hugely attractive. However, the price, and the knowledge that there is something better out there for everything the bundle does, gives me pause for thought. I’m not quite ready to give up on Photoshop or Illustrator, but I almost am.

The future

The most valuable commodity is creativity. Microsoft has stalled with Office: no one can think of anything they want Office to do that it doesn’t already do. Adobe is innovating by adding more to the bundle, but the bundle itself is fairly static. To me, it is the Quark model of turning over your development route to the advice of your users which—for now at least—renders the most, best and fastest results. Perhaps it is this, rather than the buy-to-own rather than subscription model, which is the key.



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