Why Ulysses subscription pricing is good for the App Store [Opinion]


Ulysses subscriptions hero
Not all apps should use subscriptions, but for some, it’s the best choice.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Ulysses, one of the best writing apps on the Mac and iOS, just switched to subscription pricing. It’ll now cost you $5 per month, or $40 per year. This is fantastic news for Ulysses users. It means the app will generate enough income to support itself. And it minimizes the risk of the developers abandoning the app when the flow of new users dries to a trickle.

Yet despite this good news, the internet lost it mind after yesterday’s announcement of the pricing change. Currently the Ulysses blog is only serving a single post, the one detailing the change, because the traffic has been enough to collapse the servers. What happened?

The App Store is like a pyramid scheme where nobody wins

If you use well-designed, complex software, you will be familiar with the App Store Ghost Ship Problem (a problem I just named myself). An app launches, often to a lot of great publicity, and collects new users for a couple of years. These new buyers keep enough money coming in that the developer can keep working on the app — updating it, adding new features and removing bugs.

After a while, though, these new users dry up. Maintaining the app becomes unsustainable. The devs leave the app to rot, perhaps pushing out an emergency update every once in a while to stop it from becoming incompatible with a new version of iOS. The developer moves on to a new app, because that’s the only way it can stay open for business. Meanwhile, people who use the app every day watch their favorite tool wither and die.

That’s the App Store model right now. It works like a kind of pyramid scheme, with an endless and swift supply of new users required to support existing users.

Subscription pricing fixes this. The heaviest users of an app, the ones most likely to appreciate its continued improvement, can now pay to support it. I’m a happy Ulysses user, on Mac and iOS. I write all my Cult of Mac articles in it, even using it to publish them.

I’m probably as heavy a user of Ulysses as you can get. Yet even I balked at the idea of the app moving to subscription pricing when Max Seelemann, one of the two bosses at Ulysses developer The Soulmen, told me about it a month or so back. (I shared an office with the team for a few months when I first moved to Germany.)

Ulysses subscription prices can be cheaper

On first launch, you’ll see the new subscription options.
When you launch Ulysses, you’ll see the new subscription options.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Previously, the Ulysses iOS app cost $25 and the Mac version cost $45. That’s $70, and there was no way to try Ulysses first on your iPad or iPhone to see if you like it, or to see if the sync works (it does, BTW — really well).

Now, you get a free 14-day trial on all platforms. Once the trial ends, you can keep the app in read-only mode. The $40-per-year subscription price ($30 for existing users) covers all versions of the app. If one imagines an App Store where app upgrades could be sold, then $40 every year for a new Mac app and a new iOS app seems reasonable.

Even so, people don’t like subscriptions. With paid upgrades, you can always keep using the old version when a new version launches. You’re not forced to upgrade. With subscriptions, if you stop paying, you lose access to some or all of the app. And subscriptions don’t fit all kinds of apps.

Students get a big discount on Ulysses.
Students get a big discount on Ulysses.
Photo: Cult of Mac

For something like Ulysses — a pro-level tool with a paid support team — the subscription model makes sense. But for a one-shot app with a single purpose — like an app that removes the location metadata from your photos before you share them or a sticker pack for Messages — a subscription is too much.

In between, though, are apps that could go either way. Would you pay to keep your favorite hiking maps app updated? We seem happy to pay subscriptions for apps that have ever-changing content — magazines, Netflix, etc. — but not for apps that require ongoing support, or a big effort to develop.

Haters gotta … wait?

Since the announcement, the @UlyssesApp Twitter has been off the hook. The complainers and the supporters, though, split roughly 50:50, running through the gamut of opinions.

“I’d say it’s around half-and-half, with the full spectrum,” Seelemann told Cult of Mac. “Flaming supporters, people that think it’s OK, people that dislike it but can be convinced, and a number of people that really hate the step.”

We already know that haters are more vocal than supporters, and the numbers for Ulysses’ subscription launch agree. Subscription signups have been “better than we would have expected,” says Seelemann.

A lot of thought seems to have gone into keeping existing users happy. There’s a grace period for people who already purchased Ulysses, along with a lifelong discount on all future subscriptions.

Here’s a relevant entry from the Ulysses FAQ:

I have previously purchased Ulysses (on macOS and/or iOS). Do I get a discount?

Yes, you are eligible for a lifetime discount of 50% on the monthly subscription (limited time offer).

Also, depending on your purchase date, you can use Ulysses completely for free for up to 18 months. Recent purchases of the Mac app will unlock up to 12 months of free use, and purchases of the iOS app will unlock up to 6 months of free use. Your individual free-use duration is calculated from your actual purchase dates, and if you bought Ulysses on both platforms, we will add together both periods.

In practice, it’s not so complicated. You just tap the subscription signup section in either the Mac or the iOS apps. The app will tell you when your grace period runs out, and how much the subscription will cost you after that. Despite the hurricane of whining on Twitter, the majority of existing Ulysses users signed up immediately.

Most Ulysses users signed up already

“70% or so purchased before the grace period ended,” Seelemann told us. “That’s a huge number of potential adopters.” To make that clear, 70 percent of the people who have previously paid for Ulysses have already signed up for a subscription, even if they have months left where they could have used it free. Despite the complainers, it doesn’t sound like the move to subscriptions will put off Ulysses customers. On the contrary, it seems more like they were waiting for an opportunity to support a product they use and love.

And it’s not just old hands that are happy, either. Seelemann didn’t share precise numbers for people who signed up for the free trial. But, he says, “We do have a count for the trial starters, and the number is amazing.”

Part of this relatively benign reception for a controversial change is the company’s communication. In a long piece published on Medium, Seelemann lays out the reasons for the change, the problems with the current App Store model, and the decisions surrounding this new direction. Here’s a snippet.

We want to make sure the app will be around for years and years to come. We want to heavily invest in its development, and this requires the right setting for our team, our families and our users. Writers want to rely on a professional tool that is constantly evolving, and we want to keep delivering just that.

Switching to a Ulysses subscription is easy

If you do switch over to the subscription version (and you don’t have to — you can keep using the app you already purchased), the app will import all your existing documents at launch, in the background. Any custom fonts you added will also show up there. In fact, you won’t notice anything other than the new subscription options.

It’s smooth, and typical of The Soulmen. The company has a knack for taking complex problems and coming up with simple-seeming solutions. If you use Ulysses, you know how much power the devs packed into the simple-looking app, which somehow remains easy to use. Now, it looks like the the Soulmen team did the same for App Store sustainability.


Daily round-ups or a weekly refresher, straight from Cult of Mac to your inbox.

  • The Weekender

    The week's best Apple news, reviews and how-tos from Cult of Mac, every Saturday morning. Our readers say: "Thank you guys for always posting cool stuff" -- Vaughn Nevins. "Very informative" -- Kenly Xavier.