Friday, November 12, 2021

Notability’s Subscription Transition

Tim Hardwick (Reddit):

Notability users have been left frustrated and annoyed after the developer of the popular Mac and iOS note-taking app revealed on Monday that it has switched to a subscription-based model, and that key features included in original app purchases will stop functioning after one year.

Previously available as a one-off $8.99 purchase, Notability for iPhone, iPad, and Mac is now free to download on the App Store, but not all the features are available in the “freemium” version, and those that are included have editing limitations.

To get “the full Notability experience” offered by version 11.0 of the app now requires an annual $14.99 subscription[…]


As many users have pointed out, on the face of it, the change appears to violate Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines, which state “if you are changing your existing app to a subscription-based business model, you should not take away the primary functionality existing users have already paid for.”

Isn’t this the sort of thing App Review should be checking?

Notability (via MacRumors):

We heard the disappointment from our existing customers, and we want to correct our course. […] Everyone who purchased Notability prior to our switch to subscription on November 1st, 2021 will have lifetime access to all existing features and any content previously purchased in the app.

Matt Ronge:

When switching to subscriptions, talk to lots of people about it. You want to ensure that you don’t have any blind spots. Talk to some existing customers one on one, see how they react to the news. Put together a message announcing the switch, share it with your team and others you trust. Ask them what they take away from the message. Rinse and repeat this process until you’re happy with the reaction.


Despite all of this, I still think consumer subscriptions are the right choice for most productivity apps on the market – paid upgrades would also be another good option, but I highly doubt Apple is ever going to give those to us. Just be careful when making the switch!

Ryan Jones:

Any biz owner who makes this choice is not swimming in money and trying to make more! They are dying, with 2 choices:

Option 1: Work on it out of the goodness of my heart, make no money, risk my family’s wellbeing, and it dies anyway for all users in 2 years.

Option 2: Pre-announce a systemic change. Royally piss off 10% of users. Hopefully new ones ask for a refund. Surely old ones got amortized value of $3/year. Esp if they love it.

Then we at least have a chance to live, and they have a chance to use the app in years 2+.

Paul Haddad:

I’ll say for us it was definitely a matter of permanent maintenance mode or sub + a lot of on going development to justify it.

I’ll also say I think they should’ve released a new version or grandfathered everyone in (yuck).

Apple really needs to provide better upgrade options.

Michael Love:

To me, the key problem here is that they sold specific add-ons as permanent IAP (admittedly not for very much money) but now are not only converting the app to subscription-only but are also doing so for those paid features.

Some of this may have been hard to avoid - if for example they’re using a different handwriting recognizer with new royalties - but also, grandfathering old purchases is annoying and time-consuming and means keeping around lots of awful old code; it’s tempting to skip that step.

But Notability is a great example of a bad dev + user experience that could have been avoided if Apple allowed paid upgrades.

If it’s imperative people be able to buy a new $1000 iPhone without having to give “greedy developers” any $, mandate x years bug fixes for old versions.

Francisco Tolmasky:

I don’t think this is a users vs. devs issue, but a result of the @AppStore making it hard to continue using old versions forever (since that requires changing the app name). Normally you’d just have Version N+1 be subscription & say “keep using version N as long as you want.”

Francisco Tolmasky:

[Having] a version frozen in time (so as to manage two code paths for grandfathered users and avoiding them accidentally upgrading due to iOS auto upgrades is not easy (without changing app name), whereas its the default off the AppStore.


This is not the way it works in a “if you have the binary it works” model like on the desktop. You can change everything and have zero legacy around.

The fact that most users will just have the app auto-update from underneath them exacerbates this. My point is that “grandfathering in” in @AppStore land unnecessarily also creates tech debt, at which point there are incentives other than revenue for “forcing” it on everyone.

If I had a similar situation as Notability, I think I would feel compelled to do the same as they did, just to keep the app clean, as opposed to taking on the burden of special casing past features in future versions.


Update (2021-11-15): Max Seelemann:

We’ve chosen the „new app“ approach that had also a lot of downsides to it 🧐

Christopher Atlan:

Apple doesn’t give a shit about paid purchases and anything relating to it like bundles. Bundles are broken. The new API to lookup purchases based on the receipt number? Not for paid apps.

If you don’t follow along the company line, freemium preferred with subscription, you’re in a world of pain and “are you fucking kidding me?”

4 Comments RSS · Twitter

Let’s be honest of the App Store rules, this is one that Apple have never enforced (it’s happened to me numerous times).

But Apple have chosen that this type of switch is preferable to paid upgrades. Another way policy hurts smaller developers.

While I do worry that subscriptions hurt longevity, I reflect that ultimately this is Apple devaluing my vintage hardware.

Kevin Schumacher

I was originally going to point out that Apple phrased it as "you should not take away...", and if you go by RFC language, "should" and "must" mean two different things. Then I read the first section of the Guidelines which reads "Apps should not include content...[such as]...Overtly sexual or pornographic material..." so I guess they are using "should" to mean "cannot," instead.

Subscription is a deal breaker.

> so I guess they are using "should" to mean "cannot," instead.

No, it means "if we don't like you or your app, here's a justification we may use to remove it".

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