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On Renting Software

Let me put things in perspective: Many people never own their homes; they rent. The latest figures peg it at 37% of households in this country. Cable/satellite boxes and cable modems are usually rented rather than purchased.

When it comes to smartphones, a large number of people never actually own theirs. Whether it’s the mostly discontinued two-year contract or some sort of extended payment plan — with the option for early upgrades — by the time you might pay off the phone, you’re ready to replace it.

But software? Well, for most people, it’s a purchase. You buy the product, well actually a user license, even if you receive physical media and manuals, and that’s it. You are under no further obligation to the publisher, unless you choose to purchase a paid upgrade.

However, more and more publishers are opting for a subscription model. Employing some sort of cloud-based activation scheme, you keep paying, usually monthly or annually, or lose your right to use the software. It will either stop working when payments are stopped, though their might be a grace period, and some apps might function in a limited way till you re-up.

Some software companies, such as Microsoft, offer retail  and subscription options. But the cloud package can be enticing enough that you may prefer it. So consider Office 365 Home, for $9.99 a month (plus local tax) or $99.99 per year. For that fee you receive five Mac/PC licenses plus five tablet/smartphone licenses. Each user gets 1TB of online storage plus 60 minutes of outside (mobile and landline) calls on Skype.

Yes, you can still buy a regular retail license. But at prices starting at $149.99, you’re limited to a single user. So it actually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you don’t care about cloud storage, only use one Mac or PC, and have no plans to upgrade for a number of years. The best deal is probably Home, which is also used by small businesses at least unofficially (Microsoft won’t complain). Cloud storage alone is worth the price and then some.

On the other hand, you have no choice anymore with Adobe. A full Creative Cloud subscription is usually $50 per month, with no ownership plans available. If you’re upgrading from an older retail version of the suite, it’s $30 per month for the first year, after which you pay the full price. Students and teachers are eligible for a $30 discount for the first year. You can pay $20 for a single app, say Photoshop, but as soon as you need more than one, such as Illustrator or InDesign, might as well go for the full monte that includes more than 20.

These subscription plans may seem expensive, until you realize that Adobe has traditionally delivered major upgrades to its suite every couple of years or so. When you factor in the usual upgrade fees, it’s not such a bad deal. Well, at least if you’re someone who is inclined to buy regular updates. Some people I know preferred to skip a version to save money, since the upgrades weren’t always significant enough to warrant the price of admission.

Just so you know, I still use Creative Suite 5.5 on my iMac running El Capitan 10.11.4. It was released in 2011. For some reason, it requires installing Java 6 from Oracle to launch any of the apps, but otherwise seems all or mostly functional. At some point in time, I will have no choice, since the older version may not function with a new OS X (or whatever Apple chooses to call it) or a future Mac. I feel lucky now, as I would have to really stretch to justify the monthly fee for Creative Cloud.

Evidently, Adobe has succeeded with the subscription scheme. Microsoft makes it attractive, but I’m concerned about third-party publishers, particularly smaller ones, making similar decisions. Security software developers have long used a subscription model. You buy the app, and after the first year, you pay annual fees to keep it up to date with detection string updates and new versions.

What about the publisher of a limited-use app pulling a similar stunt?

Now I’m not a user of Smile’s TextExpander. As the name implies, it’s a utility that you can use to create text shortcuts. You create strings of abbreviations that, when typed, automatically expand to the full text. If you have lots of repetitive text or phrases in your documents, it’s quite useful. But not for a monthly or annual fee.

So instead of paying $35 for the app, the new scheme increases the rate to $47.52 per year forever. That entitles you to keep it running and receive periodic updates. But what sort of updates would justify paying $475.20 to use TextExpander for the next 10 years? Maybe $10 per year might make some sense if, again, there are frequent updates, but I’m not one to want to judge the marketing plans of the publisher of an app I don’t use.

In response to complaints from existing users, they can now subscribe for half price. That’s a bone to paying customers. Macworld magazine has posted an article listing half a dozen alternatives to TextExpander.

Again, I don’t begrudge a developer from making a profit. A subscription model, if successful, means a guaranteed income stream. If someone wants to continue to use the app, they have to keep paying. But the prices should be fair for the value you receive. Limited purpose software doesn’t seem to justify any monthly price, particularly when there are traditional retail alternatives.

As far as I’m concerned, I prefer to own the things I use when I can. I may rent my home, and I pay monthly fees for other products and services. But sometimes things can go just a little too far.