Switching to an evolutionary app update model

Many Tricks has been in business a long time—Peter’s first shareware Mac app was released in 2003 (I joined Many Tricks in 2010). Over those nearly 20 years, the software business has changed dramatically—programs are now apps, Apple decided that “free with ads” is a good business model for developers to pursue, and the Mac’s operating system is now free.

While we’ve adapted our business a bit over that time (we do call them apps now, usually), there’s one thing that feels very out of date: How we keep our business in business. Up until today, that was done through an “old school” software business model that relied on new customers and occasional paid upgrades.

First things first: We are not moving to a subscription model, which seems to be all the rage these days, as neither Peter nor I are fans of software subscriptions. So what is the new model? Here’s the tl;dr version:

In our old model, features were held back to create major updates worth purchasing. In our new model, features are released when they’re ready, and you decide if and when to pay for an update.

As for why we’re making the switch and how it’ll work, read on.

Our Old Model

In our old model, when we released a new app, we hoped enough people bought it to establish a good base, then we started tracking feature requests. As time passed, we hopefully continued to gain new customers, and we released bug fixes and maybe slipped in a small new feature or two.

But we kept the “really good” features for some future major update at some arbitrary point in time. When we released that major update, we asked existing customers to buy a new copy of the app, at a bit of a discount, and hoped to entice new users to buy a copy at full price.

In theory, upgraders and new customers for a new release funded all the work we did between initial release and the major update. In reality, that model is broken for us—and for you, our customers—and it’s been broken for quite a few years.

For our users, the problem is that it’s a long time between major updates. We’re a two-person company, and we like the flexibility that provides in deciding what to do next. (Menuwhere, for instance, came out of the blue after Peter and I had a conversation one day about tools I miss in Big Sur.)

But with only two people, it’s virtually impossible for us to do more than one major update at a time, so they wind up coming out linearly. That’s because major updates are big, time consuming, and complicated—both for coding and for the non-coding parts (help files, web pages, etc.), and doing one app at a time is all the two of us can handle.

So our users wind up using an app for many years without getting any whiz-bang new features. For example, Moom hasn’t had a major update since we released version 3.0 in 2012. Name Mangler had its most-recent major update in 2013; Witch in 2016; Time Sink in 2017; etc. That’s a long time to wait for new features.

For us, the main problem with the old model is that major updates are really stressful and time consuming. Usher 2, which we’ve just released, entered a public beta in September of 2019. Granted, it’s one of our larger and more complicated apps, and parts of it had to be rewritten from scratch, but still, 20 months is a really long time. During that period, we had only a small amount of Usher-related revenue (from pre-sales) to support our work. Now we have to hope that people like what we’ve written and buy a copy to help cover the thousands of hours of work we’ve put into the app.

A related issue is the amount of other work we have to do for free; there’s no way with our current model to ever cover the time we put into updating for new macOS features, or to work around bugs in other apps that cause problems in our apps, etc. While macOS features like Dark Mode are really cool, it’s time consuming to support features like this that Apple adds to the OS. Presently, the only way we could generate revenue from that work would be if we released major updates that included those features.

So you’re not happy (no new features) and we’re not happy (stressful, no revenue stream). Clearly the model had to change. So we changed it.

Our New Model

First and most importantly, we are not moving to a subscription model: Once you buy our app, you own our app, and it won’t require ongoing payments to keep working. We don’t like the idea of requiring recurring payments to keep using an app that you already paid for.

So what’s changing? We are moving away from the “pay for a massive major new release every so many years” business model. We’ll have to do one more major update for some of our apps—at least Moom, Name Mangler, and Witch—but after that, we’re done with that model. Here’s how our new model will work:

When you buy one of our apps, it includes at least a full year of updates. And unlike in years past, those updates may also include new features. When we decide that a feature is worth adding to an app (via internal discussion or lots of user feedback), we’ll add it. No more holding it for some future major update.

At the end of the full year, you’ll own the latest version released during that year, and you can keep using it without any sort of restrictions. It’s your app, and it won’t stop working just because a year has passed. At some point, if you want to update to the latest version, you can do so by paying a much lower “update only” price—and that price also includes at least one more full year of updates.

This is not a subscription in any way. You own the app, and you decide when (and even if) you want to add features we’ve added to the app over the time since your original year of updates passed.

A Real-World Example

The first app released under our new model is Usher 2, which is available as of today. Here’s how the new model will work with Usher 2.

Usher 2’s full price is $20, and let’s say a user named Beth purchases Usher 2 on June 1st, 2021. For her $20, Beth gets the app, and she gets at least a year of updates. She uses it happily for a year, and during that time we release Usher 2.1 and 2.2, both of which may add some new features to the app.

Fast forward to August of 2022, and we release Usher 2.3 with some additional new features. At that point, Beth can look at the release notes (and possibly try a demo version) and determine if the 2.3 update contains anything of interest to her. If she’s not interested, Beth doesn’t need to do anything: 2.2 is fully functional forever, and we will never automatically update a customer to a release that isn’t free for them when the update is released. When 2.4 is released, she can reevaluate, and so on.

If an update does have features Beth wants, she can purchase the update—at a discount compared to a new user—and also get another guaranteed 12 months, at least, of updates.

(How much of a discount? An Usher update will be $10—half the price of a new purchase, and the same amount an existing user will pay to buy an Usher 2 upgrade. Please see the Q&A at the end for more details on update pricing in general.)

We like the flexibility this plan provides to our customers: You can choose to purchase an update at at any point in time. If you see the first update notice after your free period expires, and nothing looks like it’s of interest to you, then don’t purchase the update. Nothing of interest in the second update? Don’t purchase it. You can skip as many updates as you wish; if and when you do decide to purchase an update, you’ll receive all the new features and fixes to date—and the next 12 months’ worth of updates.

And that’s really all there is to it. But we’re sure you’ll have questions, so we tried to think what those may be and answer them below. If you don’t see your particular question, please get in touch and we’ll do our best to answer it directly.

Questions and Answers

When does this new model go into effect?

Technically it’s already in place, but it will be a somewhat gradual transition as we release updates going forward.

Usher 2 is the first major release under our new model, so it will be a full 12 months (at least) before a new customer will have to pay for another update. In the short term, nothing’s changed: If you want to buy Usher 2 and don’t presently own it, it’s $20. If you’re a current Usher 1 user, you can upgrade for $10, which is the same amount a new customer would pay for updates in year two.

Moom is next in line for a major update, so it will switch to our new model when we release that version. Pricing will be announced once we’re close to Moom 4’s release. For apps that aren’t due for a major update in the immediate future, please see the next Q&A.

Does this change affect existing apps that aren’t due for a major update?

It does, and here’s how those will work. The next minor update that comes out after today for such apps will count as the first release in our new model. Someone buying that version of the app will receive at least a year’s worth of free updates. Existing customers are somewhat different; please see the next Q&A.

I’m an existing customer who purchased one of your apps a while ago—do I get free updates?

In general, existing customers will receive free updates for six months after the next update we publish for the app they own. If an app you own receives its next update tomorrow, your free update period will end six months from tomorrow. If that app doesn’t receive its next update until September, then your free updates would run until March of next year.

Keep in mind that we are not saying that all apps will receive multiple updates within that six-month period. Many of our apps don’t get frequent updates, because they’re very stable and basic. After the six months expire, you’ll be able to decide on any future updates when you see them—and we’ll never update your app to a paid-for update without your approval.

Obviously, if we release a paid update (as with Usher and Moom), those updates would not be free. Instead, by purchasing such an update, you’d then get the new version and a full year of future updates.

Do I need to pay for security-only fixes, as opposed to feature updates?

Our apps haven’t historically required security fixes—we’ve never released a security-only fix for any of our apps in nearly 20 years. But that’s not to say such a thing couldn’t happen in the future.

Our evolutionary model is flexible, not strictly date based (which is why we say “at least a year”), so we can choose whether or not a given update will trigger the date-based verification check. So if an app required some sort of emergency security update, we’d do the right thing and release it for everyone without checking the date eligibility.

Won’t this cost me more in the long run than the old model?

It may cost you a bit more over time, depending on how often you purchase an update. But the benefit is that this will help sustain Many Tricks for years to come, so we can keep making great apps and releasing great new features for those apps. And as has been explained, no updates will be forced—so it’s up to us to deliver features that you feel are worth purchasing.

Why not go to a full subscription model at a much lower initial cost?

As explained above, we don’t like rented software, which is what you get with a subscription. We believe that once you pay for an app, it should be yours to use until you decide you’re done using it.

Some categories of apps may require a subscription at some level. For example, apps that provide server-side storage have ongoing costs that need to be covered. At present, though, we don’t have any such apps, so we have no need for a subscription model.

What about changes due to macOS updates—are those free?

If a macOS update comes out within a year or so of your purchase date, then yes, any macOS-related updates to the app would be covered. And given Apple has historically updated macOS once a year, this means that almost all customers should be covered for the current and next versions of macOS—the odds that a macOS update will come out within 12 months of app purchase are very high. Beyond that, though, you’ll have to purchase an update to get any macOS-related updates that aren’t covered by the initial free update period.

Do I need to pay if macOS breaks the app such that it doesn’t work?

Only once have we had an app simply stop working due to a macOS update, and it seems unlikely that this will occur regularly in the future. (Note that this excludes long-lead-time changes, like 32bit to 64bit and PowerPC to Intel to Apple Silicon; those changes were announced well in advance and we had time to get ready for them.)

However, if it were to happen, getting the app working again because of something Apple did will require us to spend quite a bit of time on the app—and this is exactly why we’re switching to this model, so that we’re not forced to fix things Apple broke without any hope of covering the time and effort required to do that work.

Keep in mind that any new app purchase, or app update purchase, will include at least 12 months of update coverage, which should generally cover the current and next versions of macOS. So this situation is a hypothetical one that would occur at least two generations past the current macOS version. We don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask users to help support the work required to make our apps work in a situation where a far-future macOS update breaks the app.

So are you really going to charge me for bug fixes?

Generally speaking, functional bugs in apps reveal themselves shortly after their release—we’ll hear from many users if we messed something up. So if there are functional bugs are in a release you’ve purchased, the odds are good they’ll be found and fixed well within the 12-month window.

There’s always the chance, though, that we may accidentally introduce a bug in a future update. If that happens near the end of your 12-month free update period, we’d release that update without concern for the expiration date (see the question about why we say “year or so” for more detail on this).

Why do you say “year or so” and “at least a year?”

Because you’ll get at least a year’s worth of updates, never less, but also not necessarily exactly a year. For any update, we’ll consider whether the update should be free for people whose 12 months ran out recently. An example might be a simple change in an app that requires little of our time to do, but is important to get out to everyone. In such a case, the update will be available via built-in updater to those users as usual, just like it is for people who are still within their 12 months of free updates.

Can I “try before I buy” with the updates, to see if the new features are worth paying for?

You can, by installing the current version’s demo from our site. However, before doing so, scan the release notes carefully for any mention of backwards compatibility issues. If we had to change a data storage format, for instance, you wouldn’t be able to downgrade after testing. In those cases, it’d be best to test the new version in a new user account, leaving your current setup untouched.

Do you guarantee that you will release new features every year?

It would be wrong to commit to doing that when we have no idea what might happen in the future. But a key reason we’re doing this is to get features out to customers more quickly than we have in the past, so it’s definitely our goal to do so.

Because you can choose to buy an update at any time, you can take a “wait and see” attitude once your year is up and see what we release before buying. Plus we have a 60-day money back guarantee—and beyond that, we don’t want unhappy customers, so if you feel you’ve been wronged, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

How will this work with App Store apps?

That’s a good question, as the App Store doesn’t support anything like what we’re trying to do. Thankfully, we don’t have to answer it right away, as our App Store apps aren’t up for major updates right now. (Moom 4, which will be our next major update, won’t be in the App Store, because it’s not allowed under their rules. It’s only there today because Apple allowed the current version to stay when they changed the rules.)

Exactly how much will updates cost?

Our apps fall into two price ranges—most are $10 or more, but a handful are $6 or less. For the $10 and up apps, our update pricing target will be roughly half the full price. For apps in the $6 and under category, no update will be more than $3.

And remember, none of these updates are forced—we will never automatically install a payment-required update, so you’ll always be able to review what’s new and make the update purchase decision on your own.

Can I buy multiple years of updates at once?

You cannot do this by purchasing multiple updates at one time, as our system is date-based. As of this time, updates are only available for a single year. If there’s enough demand from our customers, we’ll add additional-length update packages.

Do you have a “lifetime” option which includes all updates for some multiple of an app’s initial purchase price?

Not at this time, but if this is something you’d be interested in, please let us know—we’re curious if there’s demand for such a product.

2 Responses to “Switching to an evolutionary app update model”

  1. TomR says:

    About time!
    I’ve often thought (and IIRC sometimes said) that your apps are dirt cheap, as in “too cheap”, and I have often wondered how you guys survive like that.

    All your softwares are EXCELLENT, OUTSTANDING, beautifully designed (this goes also for apps that I don’t use … I do check them out), and Butler alone has saved me so much time in all the years that I’ve been using it.

    Also, I admire you folks for your ethics … but about Peter I already knew that he is a really nice guy who not only abstractly cares about humankind but also cares about any person he has to do with, about every interaction.

    And yes, please lifetime licenses also.
    I don’t know how long *I* will live, as I’m elderly meanwhile, and not too healthy. But for Butler I’d definitely want one. Can I pre-order? :-)

  2. DennisC says:

    Just reading this post and I agree with TomR. I don’t like subscriptions either. I have enjoyed Moom and Butler for many years. I’m going to try Usher 2.
    Thanks for your hard work and consideration for your customers.