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.