Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Tag: software

Economics of software and website subscriptions

It’s a truism that people won’t pay for online media, except for porn. That’s a little unfair. I’m one of many people who has long had a pro account on flickr, which costs $25/year. Despite flickr’s ups and downs, I’ve always been happy to pay that. It also set the bar for what I think of as a reasonable amount to pay for a digital subscription: I give them $25, they host all photos that I want to upload, at full resolution. Back when people still used Tribe.net, they offered “gold star” accounts for $6/month, which removed the ads and gave you access to a few minor perks, but mostly it was a way to support the website. The value-for-money equation there wasn’t quite as good as with flickr, in my opinion, but I did have a gold-star account for a while.

Looking around at the online services I use, I see there are a few that are offering some variation on premium accounts. Instapaper offers subscriptions at $12/year, or about half of my flickr benchmark. The value for money equation there isn’t great—the only benefit I would get is the ability to search saved articles—but it’s a service I use constantly, and it’s worth supporting. Pinboard (which has a modest fee just to join in the first place) is a bookmarking service that offers an upgraded account for $25/year; here, the benefit is in archiving copies of web pages that you bookmark. I can see how this would be extremely valuable for some people, but it’s not a high priority for me. I use a grocery-list app on my phone called Anylist that offers a premium account for $10/year; again, the free app is good enough for me, and benefits of subscribing don’t seem all that relevant.

In terms of value for money, none of these feel like great deals to me. Perhaps because the free versions are as good as they are, or perhaps because the premium versions don’t offer that much more, or some combination of the two. But I use and appreciate all these services, and maybe that’s reason enough that I should subscribe.

At the other end of the scale, there’s Adobe, which has created quite a lot of resentment by converting its Creative Suite to a subscription model, for the low, low price of $50/month. This offends designers on a primal level. It’s like carpenters being required to rent their hammers and saws. The thing is that $50/month is a good deal compared to their old packaged product pricing, assuming that you would upgrade roughly every two years. The problem is that the economic incentives are completely upside down.

Once upon a time, Quark XPress was the only game in town for page layout, and then Adobe InDesign came along and ate their lunch. Quark thought they had no competition, and the product stagnated. Now Adobe Creative Cloud is pretty much the only game in town for vector drawing, photo manipulation, and page layout.

With packaged software, the software company needs to offer updates that are meaningful improvements in order to get people to keep buying them. Quark was slow about doing that, which is a big part of the reason that people jumped ship. With the subscription model, Adobe uses the subscription as a ransom: when customers stop subscribing, they lose the ability to even access their existing files. Between the ransom effect and the lack of meaningful competition, Adobe has no short-term incentive to keep improving their product. In the long term, a stagnant product and unhappy customers will eventually encourage new market entrants, but big American companies are not noted for their long-term perspective.

I think that’s the real difference here, both psychologically and economically: I can choose to subscribe to those smaller services, or choose not to. They all have free versions that are pretty good, and if any of them wound up disappearing, they all have alternatives I could move to. With Adobe, there are no alternatives, and once you’re in, the cost of leaving is very high.

Thoughts on job tracking and invoicing

I’ve been looking for a good job-tracking and invoicing program for a long time. I’ve looked at just about everything, and nothing suits my particular needs. My needs are a little different—almost none of my work is billed by time but piecework instead (support for this kind of thing is often an afterthought) and I need support for multiple currencies (this is rare).

I’ve tried using Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet app. Spreadsheets in general have one big thing in their favor: they impose no assumptions on you. The flipside of that is that you have to build everything from scratch. There are a few aspects of job tracking where you’d prefer for your program to have made those assumptions for you. A bigger problem I had with Numbers in particular is that it corrupted my job log spreadsheet, which is a colossal PITA. A more philosophical problem is that spreadsheets are basically flat-file databases, and a proper job tracker really needs a relational database behind it.

Watching Gwen figure her work on a letterpress printing project was a lesson in how very different the job-tracking requirements for two solo freelancers can be. Ideally, one app would have the flexibility to meet these different needs. I’ve been giving the subject some thought, and what follows is my attempt to crystallize them.
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Go with the workflow

In “A Feature Request for Apple Mail”, Jochen Wolters talks about introducing workflows into Mail.app. I think this is an interesting idea, but it doesn’t go far enough. Mail may be the app where many of us organize most of our administrivia, but it isn’t the only one. Apple should give better exposure to the excellent metadata system it created for OS X 10.4, and make projects and workflows canned datatypes in it. Apple is already taking baby steps in this direction with the to-do service built into the future version of Mail

How would this work?

Let’s take a typical translation job for me. It may involve four or five e-mail messages, a couple PDFs, and a couple of Word documents; if I wanted to get really organized, I’d add an item to my calendar showing the deadline. These are all disparate types of data managed through different applications, but they’re all related. Every job goes through a few stages (some of which are often skipped): inquired, estimated, accepted, underway, completed, invoiced, paid. Different activities may have different workflows (I’d need a completely different workflow for my fire-equipment business). So I need to A) define general types of projects and the steps of a workflow associated with each one; B) conveniently set up new projects and indicate their project types to pipeline them into a specific workflow; C) conveniently associate messages, files, etc, with a project; D) view and change the state for each workflow. It needs to be dead-easy: the marginal effort to assign a message to a project rather than just skip to the next message needs to be vanishingly small. I imagine hitting a magic key that pops up a list of active projects to choose from (with the option to create a new one); if any text is selected, a new project is created with that text as the title.

Mail Tags permits something like this, after a fashion, but only within the world of Mail.app. This might be enough if you’re content to use mail as a PIM, but I’m not (and it would get ugly trying to deal with files, and Mail Tags does not currently work with IMAP as described in that article). What I’m describing would need to be a system-level feature that was exposed in mail messages, setfile dialog boxes, the Finder, etc.

Projects could be viewed through the Finder, like smart folders. The viewing window for mail messages could include a banner showing a menu of pending projects to select from; once a message was assigned to a project, a row of buttons would be used to show and change state (this could also appear in the Finder window for the project).

Update: After doing a little more noodling on this, I’ve come up with the following bezel displays

workflow bezels

The three would not all appear at once. I envision that for an unassigned file, the magic key would bring up the first; if the user selects “New Project…” it transitions to the second; pressing the space bar would flip it to the third. For a file that has been assigned to a project already, it would go directly to the third. Those aspects of the workflow setup that couldn’t be controlled through this interface would probably be handled through a preference pane. The bezel would act on whatever document window is foremost.

At a basic level, there’s almost nothing in the data model for this that couldn’t be handled through OS X’s existing metadata constructs; the one thing that could not be would be a table associating project with project type/workflow. And so there’s no reason a third-party developer couldn’t do this right now. At a more advanced level, ideally there would be hooks added that would tie project-related events to other events, for example, when the mail client is foremost, setting a project on a message might close that message and move to the next. In MS Word, saving a file with no project would bring up the project-assignment bezel.

In fact, there’s already a program, SpotMeta, that lets users create enumerated types of metadata and apply them to files. As clever as it is, it’s a little clunky to use, and doesn’t have a straightforward way of working with mail messages, iCal events, etc (though technically, it could work with them).

Dealing with items that have been tagged with a project and workflow state could mostly be handled through smart folders in the Finder, in Mail, etc. Ideally there would be some kind of universal viewer (most likely hacked onto the Finder) that could show the contents of all the various datatypes corralled into a workflow.

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