Subscription Models: The Problem with Never Owning Anything

Photo of a For Rent sign. Used under Creative Commons.

When I had just finished college, through the first few years of my married life, I was completely satisfied to rent. Granted, we moved frequently (young, newlywed, and wanted to see the world), and, I thought, I just didn’t want all of the hassle that came with home ownership. As with most things, my views on that changed over the years, and I settled quite nicely into the concept of owning our first home. The reason was, largely, because we could do what we wanted to there. Yes, there was a lot of maintenance that went with it, but it was worth it for the freedom.

A Subscription Sparks a Realization

I remember when Adobe launched it’s Creative Cloud subscription model several years ago. My initial thought was that it was going to be expensive (at the time, there was no choice but to use Adobe’s tools…they were simply the standard in the industry), but that perhaps it would be worthwhile as I would have access to a lot of applications beyond Photoshop and (I’m about to date myself) Fireworks that I otherwise wouldn’t have purchased standalone licenses for. A couple of years of monthly payments later, I remember hearing someone refer to the “Adobe tax” at a conference, and mumbling in agreement. Fast forward to two years ago, when I received an email from Adobe stating that, if I didn’t update the version of Photoshop that I was using on one of my machines, that I would potentially be legally liable for breaching their user agreement. That was when the frustration of never owning my tools really hit me.

It’s the same as a house in the physical world, really. Yes, there’s a lot more maintenance. Standalone licenses mean that you eventually have to upgrade, and there’s often a painful upgrade path if you’ve waited for a while. Keeping your data on your own server means you are your own sysadmin, with all of the hassles that go with that. The tradeoff is the freedom to do whatever you want with it, because it’s yours. You bought it. You own it.

In other words, when you’re in an apartment, you can’t paint the walls, and eventually you realize just how badly you want to.

Why Don’t We Want to Own Our Stuff?

As our digital culture comes into its own, we seem to be moving more and more in a direction of perpetual renting. Our software tools are becoming progressively indispensable to our lives, and those who make those tools are beginning to realize that the profit model of requiring recurring subscriptions forever is so much more lucrative than a standalone license. The result is that they are forcing consumers into perpetual payments while never owning what they’re paying for. When I received that email from Adobe, it was just a matter of my forgetting to update for a long time on a machine I rarely use that software on. If, for some reason, I wanted to use a 3-year-old version of Photoshop, though, I wouldn’t have the freedom to do so. That bothers me.

I’ve written before about how companies using subscription models are confusing lock-in with loyalty in our entertainment, and that’s bad enough, but I think that there’s something even worse about it when it has to do with the applications that we rely on to get through our day-to-day. To add to the problem, I see so much of the web moving toward SaaS or PaaS tools, taking away consumers’ freedom to move between services. I think that, if you have a compelling enough service or product, your customers won’t want to move away. Locking them in to prevent their moving only serves to reduce the developers’ incentive to produce good work, and causes resentment on the part of the consumer.

I want to be clear: I’m not against developers making money for their work. Ever. I have no issue with developers charging for licenses to their products, any more than I have a problem with tip jars on open source projects. I just think that the goal should always be about making the end user’s life better. That, after all, is why we make this technology. And giving the end user more freedom is part of that goal.

Image attribution: Mark Moz under Creative Commons.

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