The Danger of Dependencies

Glenn Fleishman writes for TidBits on Eye-Fi’s decision to drop support for many of their products this September:

I have long been dubious about devices that require the continuous operation of Internet-connected services to function. I don’t expect relatively inexpensive hardware to remain useful and work forever, of course. But while Eye-Fi says it began to phase out the last products that are affected starting in 2012, it allowed them to remain in retail sales channels until March 2015. The company should have taken more ownership of the situation around products sold in the last five years.

It’s not just hardware — the products and services we use are increasingly dependent on a monthly or yearly subscription fee to retain their usability. Streaming music and movies, the software-as-a-service model, and “internet of things” devices have all made us more comfortable with paying small amounts of money over time instead of a lump sum for a lifetime of use.

There are good arguments to be made for subscription pricing. It allows software developers to have regular cash flow; prior pricing models encouraged a surge in sales upon the release of a new version, followed by a slow trickling off as the version increases in age. Such a model presses developers to think in terms of monolithic releases, which seems outdated when software doesn’t need to be packaged and shipped to be updated.

It also means that we, as consumers, feel the cost impact a lot less. Many people listen to the same songs and albums repeatedly in Spotify, which they could own forever for $10 per album, not per month. But having a subscription instead allows users to experiment with new and more diverse music choices without expending any additional cost. Lots of people don’t take full advantage of this, but that’s okay too — it all evens out.

However, we’ve seen instances where music becomes no longer available due to a licensing expiration. Movies and TV shows appear and disappear from Netflix on a frequent basis, which makes its selection unreliable. Free software you rely on can simply disappear, while paid software requires an ongoing cost for as long as you’re using it. If the software utilizes a proprietary file format, you have a choice to pay for a very long time, or hope that you’ll be able to recover your data should you need it in the future. Most of these problems are not new, but they are exacerbated by the rise of the subscription pricing model.