Why polarr has a subscription
Last updated on 2018/5/11

Dear Polarr user,

This is Borui, founder of Polarr. We know that everyone hates subscription. As app developers, we do too when we consume other developers’ apps. On behalf of all software developers, I first want to say thank you If you're already paying for a service that has a freemium model of a subscription, and you're the top 1% of all users.

I'd like to explain or maybe help start a conversation about why Polarr or other developers are changing to subscription, and why this is becoming a ubiquity. For any comments or discussions that you’d like to have with the team, you can email me at borui@polarr.co or support@polarr.co

The main reason why apps are switching to subscription, also a hidden reason from most end users is that it costs a lot more money to maintain apps among multiple platforms and devices these days, but the impression that once a piece of software is made, it will just work forever did not change much.

Before 2012, software systems update slowly. For example, it took 8 years for Microsoft to develop Windows 7 from Windows XP, but only 3 years from Windows 7 to Windows 8, and 2 years from Windows 8 to Windows 10. This is because the number of PC and software users were exploding, and the need of users evolved drastically. Today, major updates are becoming the new norm. Every year or even quarter, Apple, Google or Microsoft would release a new OS or significant patch, or a new phone with a new screen size, or a new developer toolchain and framework.

To stay compliance with all the new tools, OS standards, security protocols, UI/UX guidelines, device requirements such as 3D touch, color space change, etc., developers need to burden an ongoing cost in code rewrite and refactor. It means that for a well-developed app, it needs a full team just to maintain existing features so that the app still functions among multiple devices, before thinking about developing new features from user feedback.

In our case, when Polarr launched Polarr in 2015, there were just three screen sizes for all iOS devices, and the iOS operating system only had minor improvements over updates. Fast rolling to 2018, for iOS platform alone, we now have requirements for 10+ different screen sizes, 4 more major iOS releases, new color space, file format, faceID, iCloud, Apple Pencil support, new Photos Extension, etc; and remember that Polarr now has more than iOS - we have 6 platforms to support. A lot of energy is spent just to catch up with these requirements and features released by Apple.

For any developer, it would be a dream for everyone to have the same phone, same OS. The cost of developing apps will be an order of magnitude lower and we'd be all happier as well, but Polarr can't force all users to upgrade or change devices. For example, we had to drop iOS 9 support for Polarr 5.0 to reduce our cost and that produced a ton of expected 1-star reviews, but we had to make such a decision. Maintaining iOS 9 support means more cost and a higher price for our software.

As you might already know, software is already an extremely competitive space. With the extra gap in understanding the true cost of software development, the consumer and developers started to point finger at each other. The consumers accuse developers being greedy, and developers believe the consumer is no lessor in the same way.

For example, The New York Times has 89 million unique readers per month as of 2018, but only has 2.2 million paid subscribers; The Guardian has about 140 million unique visitors a few years ago, but only 800k subscribers. The software industry sees a very similar pattern - people want content for free. In fact, most users will go through ridiculous length to avoid paying for software. In the meantime, they will also protest ads and privacy tracking, but would not support a business model that makes ad tracking technology obsolete. Because for a regular user to consider buying a service, most will wait so long and make the conversion so expensive, a huge chunk of the developer's revenue will evaporate in sales and marketing costs. Most developers are considered doing well if they can break even.

If the gap in our understanding of software development cost is smaller, and instead of 1%, say 10% of users are willing to pay for a service, then each user would also pay 10x less. For The New York Times, that would be a $1 per month subscription for the 10%, instead of $9.99 base subscription for the 1%.

To delve more into how Polarr’s number and cost works, going subscription, in fact, reduces our immediate revenue. In 5.0, all free features remain to be free, meaning most free users won't convert to our paid user. Before 5.0, we were charging $19.99 for one time unlock, now people who want to pay would start to subscribe at $2.49-$2.99 a month for pro features. This means we're making slow but more sustainable revenue over a longer period of time.

It took us a few months internally to get to a price lower than $3 a month to justify our ongoing cost. The hope was that we could attract not only the top 1% but maybe the top 3% of users to pay. As we went through repeated debate to remain competitive compared to other apps, we made sure the team can still sustain itself and keep developing new tools and features. Keep in mind that the subscription plans we introduced are cross-platform, so we're charging money once from all platforms - this is an extremely competitive price of all subscription plans you can find on desktop/mobile for photo editing apps.

Anyone can argue that if what we’re doing is not making money, then it’s probably not worth doing anyway. Fortunately, we see a large number of people who are willing to pay, and we believe Polarr does have a product-market fit in the photo enthusiast community. This is why we market and emphasize a lot on paid local adjustments and paid advanced tools, and downplay paid-filters because paid-filters are readily available in other apps. Those who did pay for Polarr and those who do recognize the value they’ve paid for are ultimately the people who keep Polarr alive, and it is the paying users that provide us confidence and guidance in keep developing new features for years to come.

Lastly, for software applications that do not switch to subscription, it would mean that those apps will likely to start to rot away for quality and stability, especially if it has a large number of users. Or maybe the developer needs to use in-app-advertisement or to trade/sell user data to break even. None of those are what we want Polarr to be. We think the bottom line is, apps like Polarr that are supported by subscription will have a much better time deliver higher quality, stability and consistent experience for the users, and we hope you will understand that too.

Thank you all for using and supporting Polarr to grow.


May 12th, 2018