On Subscriptions (Part Two)

In my last post, I laid out a lot of subscriptions for apps that I pay for quite happily. In that article, I laid out some of the logic behind why I found those particular apps to be worth the money, and in this one, I wanted to lay out some apps I’m not subscribing to, with one in particular I want to touch on.

There are all sorts of reasons not to be willing to subscribe to an app — it’s a simple question of whether the value proposition is there. But I think it’s significant that it’s a different value proposition than whether it would be worth it to buy an app outright or not.

I consider apps that I’m thinking of buying like some people buy books or others kitchen gadgets. “Will I ever get use out of this?” I live an enchanted life in that regard — yes, I was in a dire situation in which I absolutely needed the newest version of Roxio Toast to burn DVDs once. I use all sorts of text transformation tools to make my life easier. I have silly iWork and Office templates collection apps that I will occasionally search through before being disappointed that there’s nothing quite right.

But with subscriptions, it’s a very different question. It’s really “is this functionality (or the increased functionality over the free version) going to be worth the money over the next year?” That’s a much harder yes, and while I did describe a number of my “yes”es, now I want to dig into the “no”s. Most of these are great apps, just…not great enough for me for their price. Most of these apps are also ones that I’ve actually bought prior to their transitioning to a subscription model.

Capo is the first one that comes to mind. I never had The Amazing Slow Downer or anything in that space prior to Capo, and I think it was one of the first major purchases I made on the Mac App Store after owning a Mac. It was the first app I had that could modify tempo independent of pitch or vice versa. It’s also got some neat isolation features, but at the end of the day, it’s really made for guitarists which I am not. It’s alright for identifying the chord changes of something, but that’s not a real need I have. Even independent of its subscription transition, I found that for serious use, AnyTune Pro+ was a better fit for me.[1] So while I hope the best for Capo’s team, it was very easy for me to decide not to jump onto at $20/yr.

Instapaper and Pocket are services I’ve gotten amazing use out of that I’ve never been able to justify the premium versions for. I started off on Instapaper originally during the period of time it was owned by Pinterest (well after Marco Arment sold it). At that point in time, it actually rolled in the features that had previously been on its premium tier for free, and there was no option to pay money. They’ve since gone back to that model with a transfer in ownership again. For unrelated reasons, I’ve actually moved to Pocket in the last year. There’s only one really strong reason,[2] the rest is all sort of amorphous preference, and I could easily transition back if I were so inclined.

Both offer pretty similar premium features at $45/yr on Pocket and $30/yr for Instapaper: Full text search for articles and a removal of limits to highlights and notes. Each app has a few more distinguishing features on top of that (some speed reading and text-to-speech features on Instapaper and fancy fonts on Pocket), but at those prices, those features aren’t worth it to me. I’d love to support the development of them — both show some serious age — but I can’t justify those prices for those features. Instead, if I want to mark up an article in a serious fashion or save it to search later, I’m better off putting it into DEVONThink where it can live with all sorts of other content anyway.

PDF Expert is my PDF app of choice on macOS and iOS. I bought it upfront on both platforms, and there’s actually no subscription associated with the Mac version at all. While it lacks the OCR features of an app like PDFPenPro (or DEVONThink where I’m actually doing most of my OCR these days), it’s a much smoother experience for me for just about every other kind of PDF manipulation under the sun. It kind of breaks my heart that it’s gone to a subscription model, because it’s not just not right for me, but I don’t think it’s worth $50/yr for anyone. I didn’t lose any features with its transition to a subscription model, but I did lose my go-to recommendation for a PDF app for friends and family on iOS.

There are two more apps that I hesitate to include at all, because they haven’t migrated to a subscription option — they both offer it as an alternative to buying the app outright — but I think it’s worth highlighting that I think buying them outright continues to be the best option. The first is OmniFocus, but really all of the OmniGroup’s apps. I won’t break down the full offering of their different subscription options, but I’m not sure who it makes sense for unless someone is really inclined to feel that they shouldn’t have to pay for upgrades to apps, yet they don’t mind subscriptions. I don’t think that imaginary person exists. Maybe for someone who’s using OmniPlan plus all of Omni’s other apps the math works out. I don’t know. The other is DEVONThink To Go, and the subscription is only even an option on their mobile app, and is a totally optional alternative to buying it upfront. Again, I’ve just bought each outright, but I have no objections to this model.

In a similar vein, I’ve seen lots of smaller developers who started subscription only — with prices points in the $1015/yr ranges — come out with “lifetime access” options well after the fact for about 22.5x the price of their yearly subscriptions. This is exciting to me to see, and makes me more willing to look at their premium versions in the first place if I was making do with their free versions.

But the fun is over on this post, on to the whining.

The Trouble with Sibelius

Out of the big three commercial notation applications in 2021 — Sibelius, Dorico, and Finale — Sibelius is the only one to offer a subscription option..[3] They’ve been offering a subscription version for a while now, and for a time, it was basically easiest to just ignore it if you wanted to be using a perpetual license. And today, it’s still not the only option.

The only real difference between the models for the big three programs (if you were on the perpetual license), was that Sibelius had an “upgrade plan,” rather than charging you for occasional ‘major’ version changes. You would basically buy a year of updates for a single price, and you could keep renewing that or just buy a new upgrade plan down the road when you were ready/incentivized by the features. It was frankly, very user friendly.

But in 2019, they made a change to the upgrading of perpetual licenses. If your upgrade license ever lapsed, you couldn’t get a new one without buying a brand new, full-price perpetual license. This is incredibly user-hostile.

By the time Sibelius made this change, I was using Dorico and my Sibelius upgrades had lapsed and I didn’t hop on, so I would have to buy it at the full education price of $300 again. The only benefit I can possibly get for previously buying a license of Sibelius compared to someone who has never given Avid money before, is if I’m willing to shift to a subscription at a discounted rate, and that subscription discount returns to the normal rate after a period of time.

In fairness to Avid, I understand why they did this. Before, I’m sure many users were letting go of their upgrade plans waiting for a feature that was lucrative enough to bring them current, meaning that Avid was getting very little money from most of their user base. But this is too far in the other direction.

I don’t actually use Finale for anything these days, but because I used to and because we live in a connected age, I regularly keep an eye out for deals on Finale upgrades and have given MakeMusic more money after ceasing to be a real Finale user. This is what I planned for Sibelius as well, but that’s off the table now. I’m not willing to pay full price all over again for the updates since it lapsed for me, and because of that, there’s no chance I ever become a Sibelius user again unless Dorico completely drops the ball (and I don’t see that happening — they’re the best team in this business right now).

I do want to contextualize my complaints, as being an educator and a notation software hobbyist.[4] For professional composers and engravers, it was probably much easier to never let it lapse, and the importance of Sibelius to their workflows (and the disruption that it would cause to change software) means that it’s worth it to suffer Avid’s abuse and user-hostile behavior. And I know that sounds overdramatic, but I think it’s also accurate — Sibelius is still the most popular software in the industry by my estimation, and they can get away with this solely because it’s so important to people’s work. Some people are getting by with their work on old versions, but as someone who doesn’t have a career-level dependence on Sibelius, I’m completely done with Avid.

As I mentioned, I’m using Dorico now, and I’ll be sharing soon on here just why I think it’s the best option for educators right now.


  1. Credit to Robby Burns for recommending AnyTune.  ↩
  2. I’m quite colorblind, and I also happen to prefer dark mode on just about every app. In Instapaper, the dark modes make it incredibly difficult for me to to tell links from their surrounding text.  ↩
  3. It’s actually a bit confusing keeping track of their current product offerings, but Scoring Notes has done a pretty good job of breaking it down. In addition to that podcast episode, they’ve got a number of good articles explaining it.  ↩
  4. I think they used to have a label in the DSM for “notation software hobbyists.”  ↩

2 thoughts on “On Subscriptions (Part Two)

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