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[Digital Simplicity] How much can we pay for subscription-based apps?

When I was watching the dispute unfold this week over a popular note-taking app for Apple’s mobile operating system iOS, I could not help but think about what mobile apps really mean for my digital life beleaguered by a steady rise in total cost.

App developer Ginger Labs on Monday announced that it would introduce a subscription pricing model for its popular note-taking mobile app Notability. The announcement itself is not surprising, since app developers often switch from a one-time purchase model to a monthly or yearly subscription model in the name of offering continued updates and adding more features. As in other similar cases favoring subscription plans, Notability’s change was not well received. In fact, it sparked a firestorm of complaints, protests and criticism from existing users on social media.

The reason was that the developer was trying to force current users to opt for a $14.99 monthly subscription by Nov. 1 next year, or use a seriously limited “free” version like everyone else. The free download version, mainly for those who want to try out the app’s basic functions, does not support the crucial iCloud sync and, shockingly, does not allow users to edit their notes as often as they want. The limits imposed on the number of edits -- a fairly new and consequential type of restriction for a note-taking app -- means users have to always be conscious about how often they edit your notes, a psychological burden only lifted by signing up for a subscription.

The crippling restrictions on the sync and editing functions of Notability might be accepted by new users who will later go for a subscription, but they were by no means acceptable among current users who have already paid for the app and now face a sort of hard sale at the cost of their initial investment.

After coming under a torrent of attacks from users, Ginger Labs came out with a new announcement Wednesday, saying existing users who bought the app would “have lifetime access to all existing features,” including iCloud sync and unlimited editing.

The change of heart from the developer came after many users filed complaints with Apple, pointing out that the switch broke the app store’s review guideline as follows: “If you are changing your existing app to a subscription-based business model, you should not take away the primary functionality existing users have already paid for.”

The developer’s plan to take away Notability’s primary functionality from users after a one-year grace period is, in theory, a violation of the guidelines, though Apple did not issue any formal position over the dispute.

The controversy surrounding Notability, one of the most popular apps of its kind on Apple’s App Store, raises a couple of questions on the part of app developers as well as paying users.

First, it is not clear whether note-taking apps can justify a monthly subscription in the first place, since updates and additions of new features are not so frequent or crucial from the perspective of ordinary users. Of course, many apps become useless after several (or even a couple of) years, unless developers update their apps to meet the standards and protocols of new mobile operating systems. But this is mostly for a relatively long-term stability update to keep the app compatible with the latest operating system, not for new features on a monthly basis.

Second, the “pay as you go” model behind growing cases of subscription pricing may work for those professionals who make money by using top-tier software titles developed by giant developers such as the Adobe suite, but a monthly payment may not sit well with cash-strapped college students who want to use affordable note-taking apps in the classroom.

Before the Notability app was thrown into the dispute, users had already witnessed how other popular iOS titles such as Day One and Ulysses handled the switch to subscription-based pricing.

Day One, a leading journaling app, was launched in 2011 as a paid app. In mid-2017, its developer turned the app’s upgraded version, Day One 2, into a free download and offered a premium option via subscription. The original version called Day One Classic was maintained as a functional app for a while, but has since been officially retired, which means users have to migrate to the subscription-based plan or find an alternative.

Ulysses, a writing app, switched to a subscription model in 2017, but the original app is still usable by existing purchasers, as long as they run the software on old Apple operating systems.

For small app developers, charging monthly or yearly fees clearly helps set up a sustainable foundation through a regular stream of revenue. But for users, especially those who are already paying fees to use a growing list of popular apps such as Netflix, Spotify and Adobe’s programs, their budget for other apps is bound to be limited -- a harsh reality for small developers considering a switch to the subscription model.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)

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Yang Sung-jin is a senior writer at The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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