"Buying" Software

I’ve been around long enough to watch the entire history of personal computer software. At the risk of over generalizing, the history basically went like this:

  • 1975-1978 — dominated by “open sharing” and individuals trying to make a few dollars off their efforts and using one-at-a-time production techniques. Call it the "zipper lock bagware" era. A lot of folk were experimenting with trying to figure out how to distribute and sell software.
  • 1979-1983 — VisiCalc really kicked off the first real era of “packaged software” and this rapidly grew and took off with the introduction of the IBM PC.  The initial kickstarters were products such as VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, WordStar, dBase, and a handful of other seminal programs that performed office-type functions. These also tended to be high-priced, deep-featured packages. “Packaged software” continued for quite some time even into present, but has morphed and split as other ideas became more mainstream. If you remember the Egghead Software stores, you remember the packaged software era.
  • 1984-2000 — “Economy software” was one of the morphs, partly driven by companies such as Paperback Software and others that targeted the US$100-200 price range as the IBM PCs and compatibles started to attract individual home users. “Targeted software” was another, where you made a smaller product that did one thing really well. On the Mac side I was the business unit manager responsible for a lot of this type of software at Connectix (Ram Doubler, Speed Doubler, Virtual PC, etc.).
  • 2000-2010 — A muddy period where you could find everything from Freeware to Shareware to Economyware to  Packagedware to Seatware and the trends were decidedly mixed as to where things were going. But the ubiquitousness of the Internet and the growing presence of Torrents of illegal content started to come into play and slowly undermined virtually all software-for-sale efforts.
  • 2010-present — The rise of the App Store and SaS (software as service, but the way we see it as consumers: “Subscription ware"). 

Unfortunately, the present mix is not great for consumers. On the one hand we have the total mess of App Stores, where a handful of useful and welcome products tend to get hidden within a warren of clones, low-level products, single-function products, plus out-and-out garbage, and at prices that aren’t sustainable for the developer.

On the other hand we have the Packagedware products like Adobe’s Creative Suite and other higher-end products trying to morph into Seatware via subscriptions. And this seems to be the clear trend in digital photography software. On1 Software appears to be heading towards subscription with their OnPlus programs, for example, though at least when your subscription expires your products still work. 

I hear from people all the time complaining about subscription ware. I’m ambivalent about how I pay for a product, though. 

I’m probably paying less for the Adobe products I use these days (Lightroom, Photoshop) than I did when I was updating packaged versions regularly. The one difference is that I no longer do this with the entire suite—one of the reasons why I’m paying less—as it’s just too costly to do. Thus I’m no longer dabbling in the other Adobe CS products. So Adobe is getting less money from me and I’ve moved on to non-Adobe products for some needs. I’m sure that’s not what they intended. 

So what is it that these companies intend with subscriptions? Simple: a reliable, predictable monetary stream. Why is that important? Well, over time I’ve watched software company after software company wander into the update/new product doldrums. They either come out with a for-money update that is underwhelming and thus lowers their revenue stream suddenly, or they add a new product that’s a dud, which doesn’t pay back the investment in developing it. 

Cash is everything in business. Profit a little less so. Companies like Adobe have to continue to develop and redevelop all their products, and to dabble at finding new ones for growth. Operating Systems don’t stay stable forever; they tend to constantly add new features and performance that necessitates structural rewrites of code these days. Structural rewrites of code are one of the reasons why sometimes software updates don’t generate any money: the rewrite was necessary for the company to keep up with the latest systems, but the bulk of existing users didn’t yet need that change, so they don’t update. In other words, money went out the door to make necessary plumbing and foundation changes, but no money came in the door to pay for that. 

Subscriptions guarantee a constant and predictable revenue flow. Having some experience with that myself in a different business (magazines), I’ll say that it’s okay to have people that don’t renew subscriptions and thus have to pick up new subscribers to replace them, as long as that’s a modest turnover and also predictable. Moreover, you hope you’ll pick up that former subscriber again, that it was just a temporary money problem they had that forced them to drop you.

Lest this all seem like I’m suddenly an Adobe-apologist, I’m not. And it’s that last bit I mentioned that has me seriously critical of Adobe’s current practices and policies. It isn’t the subscription aspect or the monthly cost that’s the problem with Adobe’s Creative Cloud endeavor. Rather, it’s the execution in the details that is highly problematic. 

First, there’s the expiration problem. Adobe’s policy should be: commit to a year, and after the year if you drop your subscription your product will still work but won’t be updated. If you later decide to re-subscribe, don’t expect the same low price we offered you originally; your re-subscription price will probably be higher. (Technically, it would have been better long term if the first year subscription price was US$14.99/month but annual renewals were at US$9.99/month. Then someone who wants to pick up their subscription again would pay US$14.99 for the first new year before getting the lower rate.)

In other words, grandfather those that committed to you to best pricing, while not punishing those who’ve left. Why don’t you want to punish the ones who leave? Because you might want them back in the future! In the magazine business we didn’t punish those that cancelled their subscription. Indeed, they often turned out to be the best candidates for new subscription offers.  

Unfortunately, Adobe has all kinds of punishments hidden in their handling of Creative Cloud. Moreover, they treat Lightroom/Photoshop differently than they treat Premiere/After Effects. Why there isn’t a US$9.99/month videographers bundle, I don’t know; that’s the only way they’d get me off of FCPX, because my only rational choice with Adobe right now would be to go from a US$9.99 photographer’s bundle to a full US$49.99/month plan.  

Even if you’ve been a Creative Cloud subscriber for more than a year, you have to watch out for the Adobe “early cancellation penalty,” which effectively makes you pay for a full year. That’s if you can get through Adobe customer service's attempts to keep you from cancelling; they’re particularly good at extending the conversation rather than just cancelling as you ask. The proper response for Adobe would be to just do what the customer asked you to do, then make any re-committent offers you want to. But that’s not what they do.

There’s also a hidden penalty in the way Adobe currently handles things. The actual listed penalty for early cancellation is X, but the offer they’ll give you via customer service to not cancel yet (“my supervisor has authorized me to give you Y months free”) is always greater than X! 

Then there’s the fact that you don’t really have working software any more after you’ve cancelled. Recent history now tells us why that is: Adobe hasn’t really lived up to upgrading the Creative Suite products in truly meaningful ways that would make us upset that we didn’t have the latest and greatest if we were stuck with the older version (e.g. CS6).

For the most part, Adobe has updated their products in marginal and negative ways, at least for the photographer group they targeted with the US$9.99 special. Of all the features that have been added in the now two+ year history of Photoshop CC, I can count what was actually useful on a subset of the digits on one hand. Meanwhile, they’ve stopped upgrading the CS6 ACR to new camera support. So those of us who live with new gear can’t really stick to CS6 unless we want to complicate our workflow. 

App Stores aren’t any better. I have no idea what Apple, Google, and Microsoft are thinking. Actually, I don’t think they’re thinking. Because every one of these stores is a mess. It’s as if they think that “search” is the answer to all problems. Oh, wait, Google thinks that, and Apple and Microsoft have big search teams that think that. 

Trouble is, most potential customers aren’t search experts. They have no idea what to type in a search box, let alone the nuances within the box that might help them actually find what they were really looking for. In essence, Apple/Google/Microsoft all take the same approach: yep, it’s in the App Store, but it’s your problem to find it. Which of course, you don’t. 

Think this isn’t a problem? The iOS App Store has over 1.5m apps in it now. You’re searching for a needle in a haystack pretty much no matter what you’re looking for. And Apple’s curation basically sucks. Apple knows a lot about me, but I find apps that are interesting to me mostly through external sources, not from anything Apple does. For a company that basically pioneered sophisticated developer handling with a dedicated evangelism team, I’d have to say that where they are now looks like a bunch of first graders trying to organize all the entertainment possibilities in Vegas. Actually no, I suspect those first graders might do a better job.

But App Store problems go far beyond that. We have no “app demo” or “app sampling” features so that we can try a product before committing our dollars to it. We have no “app update” system other than “all updates are free.” This means that software developers are getting the short end of the stick, and when they do, they stop committing resources to such endeavors because the cash isn’t there. 

Here’s the equation for a thriving, useful software developer:

     SD = D * V * E

Where D is the dollars we pay, V is the visibility of the products to us, and E is the ease in which we can obtain the product. App stores pretty much fail on all three things, though if you’re lucky enough to get “promoted” by an App store for a short time the V and E values go higher temporarily.

We want viable software developers. It’s how we get new features, better performance, interesting ideas, better UI, and products that run well on the both existing and near-future hardware.

So here’s my take on things as they stand: I support companies that have intelligent approaches to the problems of letting developers make a reasonable, predictable revenue off software. I’m more than willing to pay for an update at an App Store, and I’m more than willing to pay for a subscription. But only if the underlying policies of the company in question isn't doing things that are detrimental to me as a user should I need to take a temporary or even permanent break from getting the latest version. 

Thus, I’m going to start splitting software companies into Good Guys and Bad Guys and call them out. 

Welcome to my inaugural Good Guy/Bad Guy List. This list is partly due to what I’ve written above, but I also take into account the usability, performance, and handling of updates:

  • Good Guys (Photography Software): Boinx, Camera Bits, MacPhun, On1, Pixelmator, Serif, Topaz Labs
  • Good Guys (Other Software I use): Blackmagic Design, Intego, Nisus, Omni
  • Bad Guys (Photography Software): Adobe, Apple, Nikon
  • Bad Guys (Other Software I sometimes use): Microsoft 365

Wait, how did Apple and Nikon get on the Bad Guys list with free software? In Apple’s case the whole iPhoto/Aperture/Photos thing was just handled poorly in every aspect. In Nikon’s case, they’ve gone backwards while trying to move forward, and they still have the problem of OS compatibility and customer support being poor. 

I’ll add to this list over time as I get a chance. As I evaluate new photography software offerings, I’ll be looking at the company policies and trying to figure out which group they belong in and let you know what I think.

text and images © 2017 Thom Hogan
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