TextExpander and the Trend of Subscription-Based Apps

Smile, the makers of TextExpander for Mac and iOS are the most recent app maker to make the jump to subscription-based application development. Some of the larger companies like Microsoft and Adobe did it quite a while ago. But TextExpander is a utility and Microsoft 365 and the Adobe line of products are behemoths. So as you might expect there had been quite the public outcry on Smile's move to a subscription based service.

First a little bit about TextExpander for those who aren't familiar with the application. TextExpander is a utility that allows you to create text-based shortcuts for commonly used words, phrases or even large blocks of text. Then when you type this shortcut, the TextExpander app expands the shortcut to the full text. So if you find yourself typing something over and over again, this handy little utility can save you a lot of time. But the application does even more than that. It also has the ability to design in fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice style inputs into a text expansion so that you can essentially create a template for large blocks of text like emails or even documents.

Now on to the controversy. Until just a few days ago TextExpander was a standalone app (both on the Mac and iOS) that you paid for once and used as long as you liked. I use TextExpander on more than one Mac, so I opted to get the family pack of licenses for my Macs, which was $45 and another $5 for the universal iOS app. Smile updated TextExpander last year, so last October I updated all of my devices with the latest version, TextExpander 5. Before that I had owned TextExpander 4 for several years and paid about the same amount of money for that version of the apps. So up until now I have had about 5 years of TextExpander usage for around $100, or about $20 a year.

Enter the new subscription model. Smile is now shifting over to a new service where all of the applications are free to download, but in order to use the new versions of the applications you must pay the yearly subscription fee (which gives you access to any snipits you create and store on their servers...the new versions of the app does not have DropBox as a sync option). There are several different subscription options, but the one targeted for most individual users is the "Life Hacker" subscription, which is $3.96 a month (billed annually, which is $47.52 a year). Smile just updated their pricing based on customer feedback and the 50% discount off the 1st year for existing customers is now a lifetime discount. See the Smile Blog for all the details.

So there lies the rub. For most users, the subscription model is going to end up costing them more. If you are an existing user then your first year is 1/2 off, so only ~$24 and then it will be the full $47.52 a year after that. So for me even with the price increase the app is still worth paying the subscription for and here's why. TextExpander keeps track of the number of snipits you have used and the number of characters you have expanded and calculates the time saved by using the snipit shortcuts. Below are my statistics:

You can see I didn't use TextExpander much while on Spring Break in late March... 

You can see I didn't use TextExpander much while on Spring Break in late March... 

As you can see from my stats I have saved about 27 hours of time by using TextExpander. Do I type faster than 80 words per minute, probably but I haven't logged my typing speed since high school. Let's just say for argument sake that I've only saved 20 hours of my time. That's half a work week...nothing to sneeze at. In my current job, I used TextExpander quite heavily but that has only been the case for last couple of years. But let's just evenly divide my 20 hours of timed saved over 5 years evenly, which comes to 4 hours per year. Before taxes my hourly rate is around $50, so saving 4 hours per year is the equivalent of $200. If I just leave it at that simplification alone then it is well worth the $50 a year for me to save 4 hours of my time. But it really isn't that simple, because TextExpander ends up saving me a lot more than time...it saves me a lot of frustration. While my job is quite technical (engineering), it is also very email and data intensive (everybody loves email right?). So if I am having to run off to a meeting and I need to just get one more email out and that email is my monthly status email, instead of having to put it off until later TextExpander makes it fast and easy enough for me to quickly dispatch that I can get it done before I have to run. That saves me from having yet one more task to do when I get back from my meeting. It also makes a very repetitive task like regular monthly status emails so much more tolerable. Annihilating frustration is worth it's weight in gold, so it makes that $200 a year savings a secondary factor...at least for me.

This whole switch to subscription-based applications is something that we did to ourselves. I can't even begin to tell you how many people I talk to that end up uttering the phrase "oh, it's not a free app." They are all excited about hearing what an app can do until they hear they actually have to pay for it. The iPhone and the iOS App Store brought with it a scale of available applications that was not even imaginable just a handful of years ago. The large iOS user base and the metric shit-ton (and I use that exact term for a reason) of applications out there has lead to the rapid decline of the average selling price of mobile applications into the proverbial basement. So if people aren't willing to buy applications anymore (or least expect to buy them once and then receive free updates to that application for the rest of their natural born lives), then developers are really only left with two options. Either find an alternative way to make money from the app, like In-App-Purchases or advertising revenue. Or, get around the whole (I paid for that app 5 years ago, what do you mean they are charging for version X of that app now?) by switching to a subscription model. I find In-App-Purchases a bit annoying and can't stand ads, so given the choice I would pick a subscription based model any day. But then again I have no problem paying for an app over and over again if the major paid-for app release schedule is reasonable and the updates are substantial (and of course I heavily use the application). The important thing is, that the app developer has a sustainable business model so they can continue to hang around and keep developing the app I have grown accustomed to using. See my "Saying Goodbye to Circus Ponies Notebook" post to see what happens when a developer doesn't have a sustainable business model.

So you have to make your own choice about what apps you find valuable enough to pay for. If you have been trained to appreciate the vast expanse of free apps littering the landscape these days, then enjoy those free apps. Hey, I like free apps too. But I also like apps that don't disappear into the ether just about the time they get firmly entrenched into my workflow. There is nothing wrong with looking at Smile's new subscription model and determining that it's just not worth it to you. That's ok. For many people this will be the case. But there are many free "TextExpander-like" options out there. Also, you can continue to use Verison 5 of TextExpander, probably for quite some time yet, before running into operating system compatibility issues...so there really is no need to jump ship just yet. But I suspect there will be more than enough of us that still find the utility that TextExpander provides worth the price of admission to keep the lights on at Smile for a bit longer.

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