Subscription Software: Is It Worth It?

Published February 17, 2021

It seems the new hot trend in the software industry recently is making every single thing a subscription. The earliest example of this that I've seen is back in 2013 when Microsoft introduced Office 365 (now called Microsoft 365), its monthly subscription service that gets you Office, plus Office updates and Onedrive, amongst others. Office 2019 Home and Student, the newest one-time purchase version of Office as of this writing, costs $150 per computer, compared to Microsoft 365 Personal, which costs $70 a year for up to 5 devices. They include the same apps basic, except the one-time purchase omits Outlook. To add Outlook to the one-time purchase, one needs to buy Office Home & Business for an extra $50.

Now, let's compare how this adds up over time. Assuming you need Office for 2 devices and you buy Office 2019 Home and Business and Microsoft 365 Personal, the inital cost for each will be $400 for Office 2019 compared to $70 for Microsoft 365. However, when you consider that people usually don't need to upgrade Office for a while after you buy it, and for the sake of example let's use an estimated 5 year upgrade cycle, which I think is rather generous to Microsoft. Now, you still need to pay $400 for Office 2019, compared to $350 for 365. 6 years and the price of Microsoft 365 exceeds the price of Office 2019. Considering that 95% of Office users probably don't need the features in the new version, and most Office users will find it more economical to either stick with the one-time purchase or use another office suite, like Libreoffice or Apple iWork.

Now, let's consider one more piece of subscription software that has been criticized a lot recently: Adobe's Creative Cloud. Adobe CS6, the latest one-time purchase software Adobe released, was released in 2014 and cost $1300. Comparatively, Adobe CC costs $600 a year, which takes a mere 3 years to exceed CS6's prices. Considering that Adobe used to release Creative Suite updates every other year, these two products would be neck-in-neck in terms of pricing if one got every update, which, while more likely than with Office, the majority of people would probably not need to do. However, this case is exacerbated by Adobe's failure to offer one-time puchases of their software, plus the face that they have a clear monopoly, without reasonable competitors for many of their programs. This allows them to constantly raise prices without considering whether the user can reasonably pay for this, yet users would be forced to pay because of Adobe's monopoly.

All in all, for the two most popular cases here, as well as many others, one-time purchases are much more worthwhile for the majority of consumers. However, developers use subscription software in order to make as money as they can. While this is understandable for independent developers and small dev teams, large companies like Microsoft and Adobe have enough money that they really don't need to make subscription software, and especially in Adobe's case, should offer one-time purchase alternatives and especially for Adobe, should make their subscriptions much cheaper for the average consumer. While I'm not saying that subscription software is never worth it, more often than not, when you take upgrade cycles into account, one-time purchases of software are considerably more economical for the consumer.