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I've recently needed to add a new category to my budgeting: "App Subscriptions". I already had a category for "online services", with some overlap with "entertainment subscriptions", for example with Netflix. Amazon Prime almost sits on a category on its own though. Even then, the recurring spending of those services could easily be justified by the ongoing availability of something accessible on a remote server; There's the cost of storage, network bandwidth, electricity, and so on.

Subscriptions for "half app, half services" blur the line, but then again, the service part can be useful enough to justify the recurring cost. In fact, many of those apps have some form of web-based access, for example Remember the Milk, Evernote, and even Office 365, so you could almost consider the apps just a way to make the experience of using those online services more convenient and "native to the platform" you're using.

And then there are "buffet-like" services that let you download any app from a catalog, where those apps are mostly offline experiences. My experience of these is limited to game catalogs, like Apple Arcade and Xbox Game Pass for PC, though it also applies to suites like Adobe Creative Cloud. While you can make an analogy with game rental services for video game subscription services, it still feels strange to rent a license to use some software locally on my devices where there's no physical media involved.

This is why this new trend of App subscriptions is worrying. Sure, I can pay extra for the "pro" option of my weather app to get faster updates and more data, or pay yearly for my DVR software to get a quality TV guide source, since there is some "server-side" logic, but paying yearly for software update to an otherwise offline-only app?

And what happens to your data in the service of a "half app, half service" subscription when you cancel? Can you export your data after your subscription expired? Even if you can, is it in a format that's usable by any other app? If not, if you value the content you added in those apps, you may be effectively pressured to keep paying for those subscriptions...

To put it another way, those App subscriptions penalize you when you chose to not renew by revoking access to its use. You're not just paying to get free software updates: You're paying for the privilege to keep using the existing software, and the data it contains if the data is stored on a remote server. While there are ethical ways to offer an App subscription, it's just far too easy to fall into unethical "extortion" by changing the service terms and increasing the subscription pricing. For larger companies, jacking up the prices or locking out users from their files would make the news, but for all those small "independent" App vendors, the temptation would be too great with so little consequence.

Published on February 9, 2020 at 14:01 EST

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