Apps are now subscriptions

… and there is always a something worst lurking beneath

Italo Baeza Cabrera
5 min readMay 21, 2021

I was browsing Reddit while I was writing my perception on app stores and I found someone telling about how subscriptions made him anxious. Not every subscription, like your local ISP or Netflix, but App subscriptions, like the ones you get from the App Store or Play Store on your iOS or Android device, respectively.

You just need a few moments to surf around there to see the problem: long gone are those apps who charged a one-time fee. The marketplaces are now plagued with subscription-based apps, freemium or not.

As an application publisher, I can relate about creating an application and applying a “subscription” to it rather than a one time payment. It’s less enticing to force an user to pay USD$ 9.99 up front, than charging him USD$ 2.99 a month, if you consider that after the third month the app just prints money.

There are good points about subscriptions though, but the App Store has abused the subscription model. As an user, I just really don’t waste time discovering apps in the store anymore as I know I will be hit with a subscription for the most banal thing.

It’s public knowledge that charging credit cards through an apps is ludicrously easy, and it’s common knowledge that it’s even easier to subscribe to an App than to unsubscribe to it. On the same example as before, I can make USD$ 36 a year if the user forgets to unsubscribe. Multiply that for 100 users and I can make a living with one App.

There are good and bad things about subscriptions, it just that they got out of hand nowadays.

Subscribing is supporting

Receiving a constant revenue for a application allows the developer to keep working on the app itself, like adding new features. This is usually the best way to keep users “engaged” with the app. This constant stream of income translates into better support, and makes harder for a developer to abandon the app because nobody is buying it anymore.

Another thing is the customer support. Users will encounter bugs, and they will rant about in the comments, thanks to the lack of client support system in the app stores. By this, the developer is more keen to resolve them, which translates into users with their subscriptions being kept rather than cancelled.

Users can’t expect the developer supporting the App “forever” without subscriptions — it’s more probable to have an abandoned App instead. Once the users uninstall the App for a competing product, then there is no way to actively bring them back. You lost them forever.

Remember that developers are “forced” to update the App every new major Android and iOS release, along with checking for new hardware compatibility and feature opportunities, specially when a new flagship comes out, like a new Samsung Galaxy S, iPhone Pro Max, One Plus, or Google Pixel. That takes resources that only a subscription can maintain, as these companies don’t just gift phones to developers.

But also, given the successfulness of the subscription model, everyone has been trying to abuse it to simply gain cheap bucks.

What’s the problem, then?

Even the most simple Apps are becoming subscriptions. Not only that, but multiple apps are flooding the App Store and Play Store with banal utilities offered behind monthly or yearly commitments.

The point of subscriptions, from the developer perspective, is to paying for a service that costs to maintain… well, mostly anything that happens “off-device” because it can’t happen on the user’s device. For example, receiving push notifications can be a cost since there must a server that receives events and pushes them to the Apple Push Notification Server, much like Apollo does.

The other perspective are including ads for those users who don’t want to pay for a subscription, but considering how lucrative ads in apps can be depending on the app nature, sometimes subscriptions don’t make sense. What does make sense is to put an expensive subscription that pays the same (or better) than an ad for a single user — this explains why some apps offer “lifetime subscriptions” at prices equivalent to a Nintendo Switch or an iPad.

It should be normal for an App to offer a trial to entice the user to consider a subscription. It should be normal to keep some features behind a paywall because these have understandable cost. It should be normal to price subscriptions accordingly to the value of the App…

… but instead, we got:

  • Simple Apps with forced subscriptions, like a Calculators.
  • Basic features behind subscriptions, like on-device notifications. YouTube is a prime example.
  • Extreme difficulty to unsubscribe.
  • Pay-for-trials.
  • Weekly subscriptions? Really?
  • Multiple subscriptions tiers.
  • Lifetime subscriptions with pricing made to look lower tiers “cheaper”.
  • Polluting the experience with ads unless the user subscribes.

In the end, we got Apps that nickel-and-dime the user and try to get away with everything they can. There are good Apps out there, but the fierce competition by similar Apps using these tactics is making developers broke, unless they play by the same rules.

It’s not becoming a trend, it IS a trend. There is nothing the App Stores can do about it, and will only hurt the ecosystem in the long term. As an user, I just download an specific App that I need, instead of trying different apps and give other developers opportunities to avoid wasting time with subscriptions nobody wants, or getting a “subscribe” dialog every time you try to do something in the app.

Is there something worse than subscriptions?

You buy an App, it’s your forever. You subscribe to an App, and it will work as long you pay the subscription periodically. Pay-per-use is the incoming tamed beast from Apps to bite users.

Consider an App that offers you full functionality until the last “step”, like posting an edited video on social media. Once you press “Post”, you will need to pay $0.99. It’s so a tiny amount that it will feel like nothing, in comparison of becoming highly frustrated to see all your work to the drain because you don’t want to pay a dollar. It works like a extortion.

This is much more enticing than anything and makes the user actively engaged. You can basically prey into the lost effort, and even obfuscate the payment long enough until there is no way back. You could check your metrics and adjust the price if you see or don’t see rebound. You could add more functionality on more paywalls, giving the illusion of free choice, or using the example above, stamp a nasty watermark not worth a dollar.

Pay-per-use will probably become the next thing among Apps, and I cannot wait to see how Hell breaks loose once this trend — first seen mobile games as “pay to keep playing” — translates successfully into the App ecosystem.



Italo Baeza Cabrera

Graphic Designer graduate. Full Stack Web Developer. Retired Tech & Gaming Editor.