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Ulysses Writing App Moves to Subscription Pricing

The popular Mac and iOS writing app Ulysses has moved from a standalone pricing model where the Mac version cost $44.99 and the iOS version was $24.99 to a subscription model where all versions will be free to subscribers for $4.99 per month or $39.99 per year. Students can subscribe for $11.99 per six months.

People who subscribe to the $9.99-per-month Setapp service will continue to get Ulysses on the Mac, and that subscription will also unlock the iOS version. Standalone pricing is no longer available, although existing users are eligible for a lifetime discount and recent purchasers qualify for free-use periods to make up for the previous purchase price.

Marcus Fehn and Max Seelemann, co-founders of the company behind Ulysses, have both penned explanations of the move: Fehn via a just-the-facts blog post and Sellemann in a far-more-detailed article on Medium.

Although Seelemann’s article is particularly insightful, there’s little new in their decision. Both are clearly aware of the possible backlash that has accompanied similar moves by other companies (see our series on subscription pricing). They simply see no other way that they can afford to continue developing Ulysses on multiple platforms. With apps sold in Apple’s App Stores, the only way developers can generate revenue is by targeting potential new users, rather than serving existing users. And even paid updates, which are possible only through contortions with Apple’s inane App Store policies, force major-feature update cycles and still result in spiky revenue.

Amusingly, much of their deliberation was foreshadowed by a smart blog post from last year by Mac developer and Ulysses user Christian Tietze. He also floated the idea of a subscription service like Setapp.

There’s no question that Ulysses is a good app. It tied BBEdit for the top ranking in our recent survey of Markdown-capable editors (see “Your Favorite Mac Markdown Editors,” 26 July 2017). And Julio Ojeda-Zapata gave it a positive review last year in “Writing App Ulysses Blends Power and Simplicity” (13 August 2016).

The problem comes in matching the needs of developers with the eventual costs to users. A subscription service may be necessary for developers to maintain a continuous development pace, and users may have no problem justifying a handful of subscriptions to essential apps. But if too many apps move to a subscription model, it seems likely that the total cost — and the logistics of managing dozens of separate subscriptions — will overwhelm many users. We need a curious economics graduate student to research that tipping point.


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Comments about Ulysses Writing App Moves to Subscription Pricing
(Comments are closed.)

uhuznaa  2017-08-10 18:31
The thing is that for professional users (who use an app to earn money) a subscription price is a no-brainer.

For those who don't make money with what they do with an app being forced to pay as long as they want to use it (which may be only sporadically) really, really hurts.

But I fully understand that with the prices you can realistically take for many apps today there is just no sustainable business model. People hate subscription prices, they hate updates-for-pay, and they hate abandoned apps. Tough choice.
Anonymous  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-08-14 19:54
I agree!
John Turner  2017-08-10 19:23
One reason that I bought this app for my Mac, aside from getting away from Word, was that there was no subscription. I would be willing to pay twice what I did for Ulysses to help them develop the app! But I appreciate owning my own app! Though the initial price is usually higher the owner does not have the concern that the app will stop functioning because the Developer decides to abandon the app. This is why I bought Painter rather than keeping my subscription to Adobe and why I bought QuarkXpress rather than maintain a subscription to Adobe. Frankly, if this app is going to subscription, I think that all current users should get reasonable priced updates for so long as they own the app. After all the current base is what has allowed Ulysses to be such a success. No matter what this is still a superb app!
Peer Bentzen  2017-08-14 17:37
It should be mandatory for developers of subscriptionware to deposit code somewhere, that—applied to their apps—unlock them in case they shut down their business or—as you mention—just abandon the software.
The same should be the case for books, film and music bought online.
This will of course never happen. Therefore—unfortunately—piracy.
Anonymous  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-08-14 19:57
Yes kill "CleverBridge" today! Cleverbridge motto "cleverbridge provides global commerce, billing and payment solutions for monetizing digital goods, online services and SaaS." They push so you do not have too!
Anonymous  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-08-14 20:03
Thank you, John Turner! I Agree!
Anonymous  2017-08-10 20:05
Ulysses is no doubt one of the better text processing apps for Mac and iOS. It is well thought out and well designed and free of bloat. There are many potential benefits for both developers and users to using a subscription model. I won't rehash them or the argument, but I believe one coming problem - coming quickly - is that users will stop considering subscription apps after they have already signed on for a certain (probably low) number of them.

For me, between subscriptions to Photoshop, Office 365, Apple Music, Anylist, 1Password and Day One, I'm spending several hundred dollars a year on software I use and value, but am quite cognizant that I do not own and whose features will be immediately curtailed (or stopped) if I stop paying. I'm content to pay for the apps to which I subscribe, but at this point I know I'm going to take a much, much harder look at any more apps that want to employ subscription pricing.

Andrew Scott  2017-08-10 21:02
I'll admit to a mild case of software addiction—I try and usually purchase lots of macOS and iOS apps, certainly more than I end up using. I generally purchase updates for apps I'm currently using however my interest in subscriptions is sharply limited. I'm old-school enough to feel that when I pay for software I should have unlimited use of it, at least until technical limitations make it impractical. I also don't like the idea of subscribing to software that I subsequently forget about and yet am still paying for.
Craig Cruden  2017-08-10 22:23
I have been considering Ulysses as a purchase, but this just made it not worthwhile for me. It moves from being around $45 one-time (probably every few years) to $60 / year.
Anonymous  2017-08-11 09:53
No, not $60.

The $40/year subscription price unlocks both iOS and Mac apps.
Alec Kinnear  2017-08-16 19:54
And what about those of us who have zero use for iOS and iDevices? Why are we supposed to subsidise phone users? I don't really understand why someone would want to edit text seriously on a phone or even an iPad. Computers are much better for content creation than tiny or even small touch screen devices.
I'm also concerned by this move, while also being sympathetic to the developers. In general, even if I end up paying more, I prefer to pay one-off fees (to buy a new app or to upgrade) at times of my choosing. If I pay for an upgrade it means I can afford to pay for an upgrade, and I'm satisfied with what I get for the price. Renting software means that, whenever money is tight, I might suddenly lose access to multiple applications.

I wish Apple had done a bit more a bit sooner to support traditional upgrades in the App Store, as well as make it easier for developers to sell fully functioning software there.
Alec Kinnear  2017-08-16 10:54
I'd say it's a case of another mismanaged software company. Single product, too large a staff, too hungry owners. At our company we've dropped Adobe completely in our company with zero productivity loss (there's a good replacement for almost anything in the suite - take for example video editing with Davinci Resolve which even has a powerful free edition or FCPX) and will continue to drop applications who require subscription.

There are lots of great alternatives to Ulysses, some free. Here's a whole host of Markdown editors evaluated for advanced features like tables and footnotes: The best of the paid apps is iAWriter which is an inexpensive purchase.

The Apple store not allowing upgrades is a serious issue (Apple are boxed in themselves now with their pro apps so that will probably change soon). iAWriter got around that limitation by selling different versions of their software. They are on the fourth iteration. The older versions continue to run. If you want the new version, you buy it. In which case you own two or three apps with slightly different functionality (the versions are fairly radical rethinks of markdown editing and management).

Ulysses could also have gotten off the app store (I highly dislike buying software on the app store as it means a large corporation has control of my use of software, which impinges on liberty). In general, a more word-of-mouth driven marketing system and a smaller team would lower overhead enough that Ulysses could survive and thrive on the revenues they have. To be an independent software developer means exclusive enterprise products at very high prices or keeping your company lean.

Slapping a high price tag on your product or trying to turn an inexpensive application into SAAS (software as a service) does not a sustainable business make. As Ulysses has found out. There are growth limits for a very expensive Markdown editor. Your less expensive competitors will catch up in terms of features. By pricing very high, you narrow your market and eventually have to canabalise your existing customers.
Michael Lever  2017-08-16 18:12
When I "buy" sofrware, I am in effect payimg up front for the life of it. There is nothing to stop the developer from allocating the cost to a monthly equivalnt and perhaps some do. Mostly I should think the whole payment is used for cash flow.

With subsription software, the annual payment is received monthly (a discount perhaps for year's sub in advance) but the developer's cash flow is no different. Except for one thing: the management of the cash-flow itself.

Monthly subs can seem cheaper or less expensive to the buyer. But perhaps the real reason for introducing monthly

subscription is that the developer doesn't have the financial discipline to manage the cash-flow.

I dlislike montlhy sub because often the software updates along rhe way are of no interest to me,unless OS geared. But where I have no choice if I want the app then I pay for a year.