Notability's subscription model is an insult

Mon, Nov 1, 2021 3-minute read

Ginger Labs's Notability is a popular note-taking app for Apple computers. It's a nice way for taking and organizing handwritten notes and syncing them to all your devices. This week its authors ruined it by switching from a pay-once model to a subscription rental in the most despicable way I've seen.

First, their only concession to existing paid users is that people who've bought a previous version get a year's free subscription to the new version. After that, the app will revert to a broken "free version" which removes features those customers had paid for, like cross-device syncing and unlimited editing (more on this later). This would seem to violate Apple's guidelines which say:

If you are changing your existing app to a subscription-based business model, you should not take away the primary functionality existing users have already paid for. For example, let customers who have already purchased a “full game unlock” continue to access the full game after you introduce a subscription model for new customers.

That's incredibly shady. For comparison, when Day One switched to a subscription model, they respected existing customers by giving them a permanent license to use the new app in the same ways they had used the old one. Those customers wouldn't get access to new paid features, but they could keep the features they'd purchased. I think that's a reasonable and fair approach. Not so with Notability, though: unless you pony up for a subscription, after that first year the app will become mostly unusable.

Second, and incomprehensibly, Ginger Labs paid their engineers to incapacitate Notability in the most horrid way I know of. From the Notability Subscription FAQ:

What counts as an edit?
Edits are directly tied to your usage of the app and are counted as any changes you make in a session like handwriting, erasing, or adding text or media.

Recording and modifying audio do not count as edits nor does adding or moving notes/pages.

If you're using the free version of the app, you will be given an editing allowance each month. You can track the status of your remaining edits in the settings menu, and at any point can choose to subscribe to unlock unlimited editing.

That's right: if someone who'd previously bought Notability doesn't continue to pay its new rental fee, the app will count how many times they've made a change to a note and cut them off when they hit their limit. They are literally charging by the letter. Imagine a word processor that stopped working after you'd written too many words. That's not a free version. It's what we use to call "demoware" and it's a giant insult to existing customers.

No thanks, Ginger Labs. You can keep the new Notability. There are far too many free and paid alternatives to put up with those abusive changes and limitations. I'm exporting all my notes to another system so that I can delete this abomination off all my devices.

Update: In a Fast Company article about the move, lead engineer Colin Gilboy from Ginger Labs said:

We want to make sure that people can’t just use Notability and make it all the way through med school for free. That would leave us without a business.

I have no words for the utter audacity of that statement writing off paid customers. No one was using Notability "for free".

Update 2: Ginger Labs has announced that they're "making some changes":

Everyone who purchased Notability prior to our switch to subscription on November 1st, 2021 will have lifetime access to all existing features and any content previously purchased in the app.

That's something, but doesn't undo the damage. It takes a single terribly bad decision to lose customers' trust. I won't be fooled twice.