23rd July 2019

About a week ago, the popular mail app for iOS and Mac, Airmail, switching from being a paid upfront app to one based around a subscription. Understandably, this brought a lot of conversation online (mainly on Twitter), about the ethics of it, the App Store rules that may be broken by the switch, and general complaining. I’m obviously “late to the party” on this one, but I would like to think of this being about an app moving to subscription in general, rather than solely Airmail. Although, it has a few specific mentions.

The major issue that I’ve seen around the Internet about Airmail’s business model switch, is that it has been to a degree, forced upon users that have already purchased the app. Because when they purchased the app, it was a paid upfront app, with no notice about needing to pay for a subscription in the future. So they’ve essentially had their purchase taken back, and been told to pay a monthly ransom to keep using it.

There’s certainly the argument that if developers are constantly updating and providing support to apps, that they should be able to charge for it. But when you purchase an app, you’re more than likely not thinking about a scenario where features will suddenly be put behind another paywall. This is not to say that it’s the developers fault for providing quality updates, but instead, maybe a fault of the way app updates are handled. For example, there still isn’t a proper way to do upgrade pricing. And I think that alone would provide a better experience for everyone. Developers could have a more clearly defined line between major updates, and it would give users a real chance to evaluate an update, and even say no to them. Especially if they feel like they’d rather not get any more updates if it means not paying a subscription for features they’ve already paid for.

The two features that are being put behind a paywall with this switch, are multiple account support and push notifications. Two notable features of an email app, and for the majority of people, I would imagine these being deal-breakers.

That being said, the first feature, is still free if you had already purchased the app. So this is only no longer available for free, for future users. That’s a bit better, however, it certainly seems strange to me that such a common feature would be behind a paywall. Especially with one that costs either ~$3 a month, or ~$10 a year.

As for the latter, this also seems like such a fundamental part to an email client. Sure, there’s the possibility that this was the reason it was put behind a subscription fee, but I don’t feel like that feature alone is worth the fee. I know that there are server costs for push notifications, but is it honestly $10 a year worth?

I also think it’s worthwhile to note that if you are a paying customer already, while you still maintain access to multiple account support for free (well, free after the initial purchase), the subscription price for the remaining one feature, is the same as what new customers would pay for both features.

There are also a few sections of Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines, that also create a few questions about whether the switch also follows the rules or not.

The first one is that if you switch to being subscription-based, then you’re not allowed to force users to pay for features that they have already paid for:

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. For example, let customers who have already purchased a “full game unlock” continue to access the full game after you introduce a subscription model for new customers.

I’m guessing they’ve handled this by maintaining multiple account support, but there’s an argument to be made that this should also apply to push notifications.

There is also a rule regarding push notifications:

Monetizing built-in capabilities provided by the hardware or operating system, such as Push Notifications, the camera, or the gyroscope; or Apple services, such as Apple Music access or iCloud storage.

However, with a response to MacRumors, Airmail state that they are “not using system push notifications of CloudKit or other operating system features, but its own server infrastructure.”. I guess they are claiming to show that this rule should not apply to their implementation.

However, regardless of any guidelines, and the ethics in general of making the switch from a paid app to a subscription-based app, it’s surely best to let customers know about the switch as soon as possible. As most complaints, I found online, seemed to come from a place where this is a surprise, and they feel that they’ve been asked for money with no reward being offered to them. Rather than functionality that they have already paid for.

The switch to a subscription app is always going to be hard, especially for an app like Airmail that has existed for so long already as a paid upfront app. As you have to make the subscription seem appealing for new users, and at the same time making existing users feel like there is also something to gain for them too.

In my opinion, this specific case seems a bit rushed. And I think a bit more care could have gone into ensuring new and existing customers had a good experience. Either it should have been coupled with a bigger update, that actually added new features to a subscription, or simply had a longer grace period for existing customers. Four months feels a bit short.

What’s worse for Airmail, is that there are other great email apps available for iOS. Including the stock Mail app that comes with iOS, which is what I use myself.