Luxury User Interfaces

Third-party native software is hard.

They tend to offer better UI/UX than web apps and pseudo-web apps living inside of WebViews, and well-designed software tends to require additional work for interface polish. On top of that, operating systems—mobile and desktop alike—are increasingly including better default apps with every revision as a reason to upgrade. Furthermore, these system apps have access to proprietary APIs that aren’t available to third-party app developers, enabling close integration with the rest of the OS. Notes, photos management and editing, music, web browsers, email; for most users, they’re the definition of good enough software.

In the past, I’ve noted that for desktop software, MacOS is the last bastion for apps devoted to a quality user experience. One by one, though, they are running into the realities of selling software in the age of smartphones: the prevalence of app stores have already depressed prices for end-user apps1, and desktop/laptop sales are now only a fraction of their prior peak. At best, Macs and PCs are a secondary computing device reserved for sit-down work, and much of that can be done with the built-in apps. A small set of loyal users will pay for well thought-out user interfaces, but that addressable market ends up being a small subset of a small subset.

So they’re all turning to the subscription SaaS model to keep the lights on.

I first noticed when 1Password first added and eventually honed in on a subscription model, getting to the point where the standalone software binary creaks towards full deprecation. Then, the journaling app Day One added a premium tier for a couple of non-essential features. More recently, my calendar app-of-choice Fantastical also bit the bullet and shifted to a freemium business model, with monthly and annual pricing plans to enable some of its standout features. Airmail has also updated in similar fashion, though I didn’t even realize the change until the App Store forced a software update to the subscription-locked version of the app.

At this point, I’m just waiting for my other favorite apps to move to subscriptions: Reeder and Things and Tweetbot have held out so far, but they’re certainly now bucking against the trend.

A common explanation made in moving to a SaaS model is to pay for ongoing server costs, and some of the added features—adding inline videos in Day One journal entries, for instance—do allude to heavier backend loads as a consequence. On the Mac, though, most of these apps rely on iCloud and at times other cloud sync services to do most of the work, and the end-user has to manage that storage service themselves anyway2. To be fair, most have been careful to retain features for prior users who’ve paid for the app already, and usually only gate additive features behind their new subscription tier.

But ultimately, whether these app developers can sustain their development will be a function of how much users value the added attention to detail and design. Unfortunately, when everyone thinks they’re a designer and that getting the app’s UI/UX right is easy, converting users to patreons makes for an uphill battle.

  1. Enterprise software pricing is still pretty robust as far as I can tell, though in that space the SaaS payment model is dominant.

  2. Only the Things developers were crazy enough to build their own cloud syncing.

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