The ‘old’ way of buying software is to pay a single one-off license fee and then use it for as long as you like. Software subscriptions work differently. You may a much lower amount each month, or year, but you can only use the software as long as you keep paying.
It’s a topic that divides opinion to this day. Generally, those who object to subscription software do so on principle while those who embrace it do it out of practicality. That’s two different sets of reasons.
But anyhow, let’s just spell out the differences between these two means of payment for software, see how the numbers stack up and check to see if they really are as different as they seem.
I remember when Photoshop and Lightroom were only available on a perpetual one-off license. Lightroom wasn’t so bad at around £120 (please excuse the British currency – the $USD figures were probably a little higher back then, but not much). Photoshop was a monster purchase, however, and somewhere around the £550-600 mark. Together, they had a combined initial purchase cost somewhere around £700. Sorry, Adobe, but no wonder people used to share cracked copies of Photoshop.
Now, the initial cost is $9.99/£9.98 per month to subscribe to the Adobe Photography Plan. You get the same software but for a massively reduced initial cost – and I mean massive.
No, not time for revenge, but the time taken for the cost of a subscription to catch up with and then overhaul the cost of a single license payment. Photoshop and Lightroom are probably a bad example here because the purchase cost of Photoshop was so huge. Let’s take a different example – Capture One – which is available either for a single license fee or with a subscription.
If you want to buy a license, it will cost you $299. If you get a subscription, it will cost you $19 per month (at the time of writing – this is just an example). It doesn’t take complex maths to reveal that you will reach the single fee amount after subscribing for 15-16 months, or a little over a year.
We could try it with a different example – ON1 Photo RAW. That costs £99.99 as a single fee or $7.99 a month on subscription. The payback time for this is just a little over 12 months. Except that this is not a direct comparison because the ON1 Photo RAW subscription includes 200GB of cloud storage. More on this shortly…
Anyhow, it looks like it’s pretty straightforward to calculate the payback time, right? Well, no, because there is another very significant factor – software updates.
The cost of update cycles
The simplistic view is that with regular single fee licenses you pay once and that’s it, forever. That’s actually not the case, because every software version declines in usefulness as it gets older. It’s likely that you’ll want to upgrade to the next version when it comes along, and that means paying an upgrade fee.
Upgrade fees vary, but typically they will be around half the full license price or a little more. Capture One, for example, is $299 for the full license, $159 for the upgrade (again, at the time of writing).
This means that your one-off license fee will almost certainly not be a one-off. Every year, maybe every couple of years (if you are prepared to skip upgrades), you will need to pay at least half of that initial license fee all over again, just to keep up with the latest version.
When you factor in software upgrades, this will delay the ‘payback time’ previously discussed. It might take years, not months, for monthly subscription payments to overhaul your one-off license payments, if it happens at all.
Remember that subscriptions include all updates and upgrades.
You can’t buy cloud storage
You can only rent it, you can’t buy it. This becomes significant if you want to use software that includes cloud storage and sync features. It’s one reason why Lightroom and Photoshop are subscription products, and it differentiates the single fee and subscription versions of ON1 Photo RAW. Capture One is working on its own cloud sync and mobile app services, which will shift the balance of power between subscriptions and one-time payments.
We can’t deny or shrug off cloud services for ever. It’s the simplest way to make all our images available everywhere, and opens the door to cloud-based AI tools like Adobe Sensei.
Single-fee licenses lock you in
This sounds the wrong way round. Surely it’s subscriptions that lock you in? Not at all.
If you think about it, when you buy a license outright you are paying in advance for your anticipated future use of that software. You had better be sure you are going to get your full use out of it because you can’t hand it back or sell it (to be honest, I’m not sure about that last point, but I’m willing to bet that transferring ownership of a software license will not be straightforward, if it’s possible at all).
There is a misconception about single-fee licenses, that you ‘own’ the software. You don’t. You simply own a license to use it. Owning a license is not the same as owning a product.
With a subscription (if you chose a month-by-month plan), you can stop at any time. If the software’s not working for you or you don’t need it any more, you can simply cancel, and at a far lower overall cost than if you had paid for a license outright.
Be careful with the wording of subscriptions. The Adobe Photography Plan, for example, is paid monthly but is an annual subscription. Once you sign up you can’t drop out without paying a cancellation fee unless you do it around renewal time.
Principle vs practicality
All of theses points are not some kind of subscription propaganda, they are common sense. There will still be people who have strong feelings against subscription software on principle. I’m not one of them but I respect their position. There are many things I object to on principle, even if this isn’t one of them. My point, however, is that in every practical respect, subscription software can offer a far better deal for photographers than regular single-fee licenses. To summarise:
- Subscription software has a lower initial outlay
- Updates are included – there are no new versions with upgrade fees
- Some include cloud services not available with a regular one-off license
- BUT you can only use the software for as long as you keep paying the subscription