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I guess I'll just pay til I die? Why I'm switching from Ulysses to iA Writer

I'm switching to iA Writer from Ulysses as my primary writing tool. The process has left me with some big feelings about Software as a Service (SaaS), particularly with writing apps.

Admittedly, I'm a bit of a fanatic with writing apps. I see a new one, and I must try it. And I've tried them all. Fifteen or so over the past decade. So I bounce around a lot, sue me.

The ones I remember #

A list of writing apps I've used a non-trivial amount. App Store only. In no particular order.

  1. Ulysses
  2. iA Writer
  3. Day One Journal
  4. Vesper (RIP)
  5. Google Docs
  6. Apple Notes
  7. Notion
  8. Evernote
  9. Notability
  10. OneNote
  11. Final Draft
  12. Writer Duet
  13. Write.as
  14. Bear
  15. Untitled
  16. Drafts 1.0

I've settled down in my old age, though. I've used Ulysses for three years because it's a great writing tool.

My main beef with Ulysses is it doesn't save my writing in .txt files in my iCloud folder by default. It still uses my storage, of course, housing my files that take up space on my hard drive. But they hide the folder from me and manage my writing files in the Ulysses proprietary format.

I know using proprietary file formats is a common practice, but it's particularly infuriating when text editors do it. It's text. Virtually plain text at that. Dump it all uncategorized in a single folder, I don't care. Keep your fancy file extensions if you have practical uses for it, I don't care. Just don't obstruct my ability to leave you.

But Jason, Ulysses has an export button that allows you to save in multiple open formats in any folder you wish!

Yes. And to be fair, I'm also now aware of the external folder feature. It took me three years of writing before discovering it, but I guess that's better than nothing. My problem is that these features are passive with a manual process. Ulysses' archival method is still hidden and proprietary. When I download a writing app, it's a tool for writing, not a method of obstructive storage (I pay Apple for that privilege.)

In other words, my writing shouldn't be a function of the writing tool. The tool is a function of my writing. I could write in a text file for the rest of my life and be happy. And I'll do it, man. I can quit all these writing apps whenever I want, man.

Listen, painters don't keep their art inside the house of the dude who sold them the canvas. And that canvas isn't in a proprietary— I could beat this metaphor into glue.

I blame the SaaS model #

Is software as a service (SaaS) a better model for those who can't afford a large lump sum? Tech companies often make this claim in defense of their rent-to-never-own software. Of course, that's not the reason everything is subscription-based these days.

The claim that SaaS makes the tools we need more accessible is valid in the sense that it lowers the barrier to entry. But it's not better for anyone except the companies who enjoy perpetual monthly fees. For the consumer, it means we pay more in the long term. We can then cancel and leave with nothing, or we can pay until we die.

It's the boots theory in full effect.

From Men at Arms (1993):

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. ... A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

A "poor man" will spend more in his lifetime for a worse pair of boots than someone who can afford the upfront expense of premium footwear. SaaS models produce similar outcomes. We pay a smaller monthly fee for the implied promise of long-term, iterative software improvements. But subscription models don't incentivize companies to make better "boots," just deeper moats that keep us trapped inside the service.

When it's time to cancel, because we can't afford the fees, or we found a better service, we first have to cross the moat. Whether having to find a hidden cancelation process, or exporting our work one file at a time, the resulting effort feels a lot like wet feet. Ulysses has a straightforward canceling process because I subscribe via Apple's App Store, but the migration process is more cumbersome than it needs to be.

SaaS models also demand perpetual growth, which means specialized tools slowly morph into "everything apps." In my opinion, this is what's happening with Ulysses. Developers keep adding new features that move further from the Markdown-powered, distraction-free writing experience I value in a text editor. For example, Ulysses started hosting images in the file, requiring a proprietary file format. It's a feature aimed at new writers who are uncomfortable with Markdown, presumably. So as a monthly subscriber, it doesn't feel like I'm paying for the tool as much as I'm funding the company's future and continued growth.

Conclusion #

I don't know the answer here. Indie developers need stable revenue streams, I get that. But the subscription model isn't in users' best interests, no matter how hard companies try to sell us on it.

I moved to iA Writer for two reasons:

  1. I already owned the apps, both iPhone and iPad. I paid in full in 2012 and then in 2017. When the time comes, I'll pay again. Offering a one-time payment option removes the temptation to keep me locked into a subscription.
  2. iA Writer respects my writings. They save my files in .txt in a folder where I have full access.

Writing is a personal experience for me. And yeah, a lot of it is just shitty drivel. But it's my shitty drivel. My writings are an account of my experiences. They're records of my existence. All I ask from my writing app is to store them without obstruction, automatically and by default. Not tucked behind an app with a shiny interface. I don't think that's asking for too much.

Sources of inspiration #

Choose Boring Technology

Write in Plain Text Files

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