- Justin Hunter
Before the web, applications were distributed in cellophane-wrapped boxes in computer stores. The internet allowed people to download software and avoid the trip to the computer store, but the business model remained the same. Buy it once and leverage the power of the internet for distribution, not maintenance. Just like with software sold in stores, the thing you bought is what you got. The promise of future upgrades was neither guaranteed nor free.
Then, web applications changed everything.
Web apps allowed consumers (and businesses) to break free from the walled gardens of proprietary desktop software. They provided people all over the world with more choices. The web ramped up software competition and ultimately led us toward the world we live in today–for better or worse–where our lives are dominated by web-based software.
However, the flexibility of web apps meant the expectations of software programs changed. Rather than settle for a static web application with no updates, buyers expected constant updates, new features, better functionality. It could be distributed to them in an instant, after all, so why shouldn't they expect improvements? Combine this with the rapid technical evolution of web standards, and not only were web apps capable of quick updates, but they were also capable of increasingly complex functionality.
And it is here where subscriptions began to rise. We often think of subscription SaaS as a purely capitalistic play that changed the viability of software businesses. This is true, but it's also not the whole story. Recurring payments turn a risky business into a sustainable one. There's no debating that. However, the reason developers need sustainability with web-based applications isn't simply for profit. Recurring payments create sustainable businesses which in turn create sustainable software.
If you believe, like I do, that the open web is critical to the future of connectivity and collaboration, then you also must believe that the web's capabilities must continue to improve, and we must see more innovation with web-based software. Apple's AppStore on iOS hurt the web's market share, but we are finally getting to a point where the web can compete again. I wrote in 2020, that progressive web apps (PWAs) would save the open web. The technology and support back then was not great, especially in the Apple ecosystem. But a lot has changed since I wrote that post. Many popular applications are being built in web-only technologies and mobile support comes in the form of PWAs.
With PWAs and other innovative enhancements to the web's capabilities, we see maintenance costs increase. Unlike the desktop software of two or three decades ago, the web is a living organism. It needs constant nourishment and attention. It's not feasible to charge once for a web application because the cost of simply keeping that web application online will quickly exceed the revenue made from the one-time purchase.
Yet, there is subscription fatigue in the market. In this recent article on Medium, the author argues that we have entered techno-feudalism as a result of subscription software. The sentiment is that we have been forced into this state by big tech who seek to extract rent from everyone participating in the web at large. While there is a grain of truth to this idea, it also completely ignores the fact that it's not just big tech charging subscription fees. Indie hackers and small businesses charge subscription fees too, and they do it out of necessity.
The web is not like desktop software. It's better, more flexible, and more connected. But it's also more expensive. The build it once and sell it paradigm of the old desktop ways is gone. Web apps must be hosted, they usually have backend servers powering them and databases managing persistent state, and they have teams of software developers writing new code and maintaining existing code. To expect this to all be paid for–and heaven forbid to expect the creators of these applications to turn a profit–through a one-time payment is nonsensical. Subscriptions are the only way to ensure constant development and improvement. Subscriptions are the best way to make sure the software you love stays online and loveable.
The web is not like desktop software. The web was built for subscriptions.