I’m not paying for a Ulysses subscription (and why)

On August 10 the company behind the markdown writing application Ulysses announced that the program was switching to a subscription model and that people who had already purchased the Mac and iOS software would get a lifetime 50% discount on the subscription rate (offer available for an unspecified limited time). You can read a lengthy explanation for the switch in this Medium story (the first paragraph contains the line “Our users expect a continuously evolving high quality product,?” which suggests the company is somewhat clueless about what people want from a writing program.

The regular Canadian yearly rate is $50, so I would qualify for a $25 rate or roughly $2 per month.

$2 per month is not much money. It’s the same I pay for a medium steeped tea at Tim Hortons if I throw the dime I get as change into a donation tin (which I do, I’m not a big hoarder of dimes). My decision to sub or not to sub, then, is not based on ability to pay, but willingness to pay.

After thinking it over for some time I finally came to an answer: I’m not paying.

I’ve stopped using Ulysses and will only keep the apps on my iPad and MacBook Pro long enough to move over the projects I’d been working on. The main one, my 2014 NaNoWriMo novel Road Closed has already been exported back to WriteMonkey, the program I originally used to write it back in the olden days of three years ago.

I really liked Ulysses. The interface was clean, effective and it had just enough features that I was sure it would be a good fit for this year’s National Novel Writing Month. It supports markdown, it has a very clean interface, with various ways to eliminate distractions and provide focus. It allowed you to set goals. Like Scrivener, it let you move around scenes or chapters easily. It offered customizable themes and could export to a variety of formats. It had seamless behind-the-scenes integration with iCloud. I never thought about saving, it just happened in the background, and I never lost a word or experienced any corrupted files in the time I spent using it.

There were problems, too. Macs render I-bars (used for selecting text) as thin black lines and Ulysses offered no options to change this, meaning it was surprisingly easy to lose the cursor if you used a theme with a darker background. I also found moving files around was prone to glitches, with nesting sometimes being hit or miss. There’s also no Windows version and the company behind Ulysses made it clear it wasn’t in the works.

Mostly, though, Ulysses worked well. As a simple markdown editor and writing tool, it did what it needed to.

Why am I unwilling to cough up a measly $2 a month, then, to continue using it? A few reasons:

  1. I don’t want my writing locked to a subscription where some glitch or oversight suddenly means I only have read-only access to my projects. I have Microsoft Word as part of Office 365–a subscription service–but if I want to, I can buy a single license copy of Word and never have to worry about losing write access (ho ho) to my work.
  2. Poor value. Even at $2 a month this is a middling to poor value. I get access to all of the major MS Office applications for free through my Office 365 work account but prior to that coming into play I subbed to the Office 365 University edition. It costs $80 and gives you four years of access–$20 per year or about $1.66 per month–less than Ulysses for a full office suite and cloud storage. But even if I went with the full singe user version (Office 365 Personal) I’d be paying $69 per year or $5.75 per month. This is slightly higher than the non-discount rate for Ulysses but instead of access to a single writing program, you get access to a range of products and services. The value comparison (regardless of whether you think Office is the best or worst thing ever) is incredibly lopsided. Office 365 gives you all of this:
    • Word (word processor)
    • Excel (spreadsheet)
    • Publisher (desktop publishing)
    • Outlook (email)
    • Access (database)
    • OneNote (cloud-based note-taking)
    • 1 terabyte of storage on OneDrive (cloud storage)
    • 60 minutes of monthly calls on Skype (web video phone conferencing)
  3. Ignoring the competition. There are a lot of markdown and distraction-free/zen writing applications out there. Most of them are either free or have a one-time and relatively low purchase price. Even when it was a buy-once program Ulysses was expensive, separating itself from the competition in a negative way (but at least that high price was only extracted once). My favorite payment scheme is probably the one used by WriteMonkey. The software is free to use but if you want plugin support you need to donate. Plugins offer some very nice bonus features but the program itself otherwise works fine. The author is essentially engendering good will in the hope that you will donate and get some nice extras. And it worked, I donated.
  4. Ignoring all of the other subscription software and services. Microsoft and Adobe can get away with it because they are big companies that sell to corporate users and can provide updates and services across an array of products and services. At some point people will draw a line and say no more to the next app they like that demands a subscription for use. I pay for Office 365 but I’ve bailed on my Adobe sub because I don’t get enough value from it and cheaper alternatives exist. I pay for Netflix and a few other services, like my mobile phone plan and internet, and I’ll pay for stuff like ad-removal in phone apps I use regularly. But I’m pretty close to the limit when it comes to adding more subscriptions to my load. A single-use program that is already complete and functional just doesn’t rank.
  5. A writing app doesn’t need a subscription. Microsoft can add or change functionality across seven programs and its cloud service, as well as web-based versions of the same. The Ulysses team can…update Ulysses. But as a writing program it is already feature-complete. If I was pressed I could make up a list of “might be nice to have” features but none would be essential. I can’t begin to imagine adding enough stuff to make me say, “That’s worth $25 (or $50 for most people)” a year.”

Several other competitors to Ulysses, such as the teams behind Scrivener and iA Writer, have said they have no plans to go to subscription. I wish them continued success.

As for Ulysses, I would never wish the company ill, but I hope that it doesn’t pan out for them and they switch to a different kind of payment scheme, whether it’s “pay to remove ads” or “pay for infrequent major releases” (the Scrivener model) or something else. I really don’t want to see single-use software continue down the road of constantly dinging the user for marginal value.

This, of course, leaves me looking for a writing program to use now that I’ve stopped using Ulysses. I’ll cover some options in another post.

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