Before I dive into the topic of subscriptions, let me say this first: the subscription model will only apply to new products like Voice Dream Reader for macOS. Apps that you already bought, like Reader for iOS, will always be yours.
This decision to make Reader for macOS a subscription was not an easy one: I agonized over it for the past two years, because I know a lot of people do not like subscriptions. And some of you who are excited about this new app will be disappointed. I get it.
So, why go with the subscription model? The short answer is, Voice Dream as a company is not sustainable right now, and subscriptions are the only way for Voice Dream to become sustainable.
When I started Voice Dream 10 years ago, I set out to accomplish three goals: 1) do something good for the world; 2) have autonomy and freedom; and 3) earn enough money to live comfortably. With some hard work (and quite a bit of luck), I succeeded. Voice Dream helps people with visual impairments and dyslexia read and has won many awards, so I think my work has made a positive impact; I did not take any outside investment, so I only have to answer to myself; and my total income from Voice Dream is about what I would make if I joined Google or Facebook as a software engineer. By any reasonable standard, it provides my family with a comfortable living.
So why change anything? When COVID started, my wife and I finally wrote our wills. And contemplating a premature death made me realize that Voice Dream – in its present form – would not survive for long if I become incapacitated or worse. It would wither away: one day something will break, and then another and another, and at some point it will stop working altogether. Why? Because it’s my personal passion project. I wrote all the code and no one else in the world knows it.
I vividly remember an incident several years ago. It was a weekend and I was away from home without my laptop. When I checked email on my phone, there were hundreds of new messages, with new emails coming in every few seconds. PDF files had stopped loading – for everyone. Many students wrote that they had exams or assignments, and without Voice Dream they couldn’t study. I caught the next flight home. Through that abjectly horrifying experience, I learned to never be apart from my laptop. But more importantly, it reinforced for me how much people actually rely on Voice Dream. For many, it’s not just a handy app that makes some things easier but an essential part of life.
So in addition to my three initial goals, I gave myself a fourth goal: make sure Voice Dream can operate without me, and survive me. In other words, make Voice Dream sustainable.
How do I do that? Voice Dream needs more people in addition to me and Sandra, who does customer support. It needs programmers. It needs a CEO who can manage the overall business and products. It needs marketing. It needs a board of directors. This is the minimum staffing level to make the company operate sustainably. But today, Voice Dream doesn’t generate nearly enough revenue to pay for even a skeletal crew.
Why not? It comes down to simple economics.
An initial, one-time fee, even $20, is not enough to fund maintenance for a productivity app that users expect to work indefinitely. Software is not like a hammer or a printed book — it functions in a complex and ever-changing environment of hardware, software, and external services. And over the past 10 years, that environment has become more complex and brittle, and it’s changing more frequently. Last year, I spent more than 50% of my time just to maintain the status-quo, without adding new features: dealing with OS and framework changes, new hardware devices, new App Store requirements, fixing newly discovered bugs, and working around bugs outside of my code. $20 is not enough to fund maintenance forever, let alone adding new features.
Another problem with the one-time-fee business model is that revenue is unpredictable because it comes entirely from new customers. There are big spikes and troughs. So in addition to being insufficient, the unpredictability makes it very risky to hire people, which is a fixed expense. Then there is the looming issue of what happens if new customers dwindle because the market is saturated. Then how would maintenance be funded?
Moreover, the subscription model is actually more fair. Reader for iOS became available in the Apple App Store 10 years ago and sold for $2. Functionally, it did very little. But the people who paid $2 in 2012 now have a powerful and feature-rich app that is best in – an app that is now worth far more than the $2 we originally charged. On the flip-side, someone could buy the app today for $20 and never use it.
With subscriptions, only people who use it pay for it, and you can cancel if you don’t want to use it anymore. The number of paying customers is likely to be lower, but revenue will be higher overall and more predictable. That would allow Voice Dream to hire people. With additional programmers, product quality will improve and new features will arrive faster. And, most importantly, it’ll turn Voice Dream from a personal passion project to a proper company with a secure future, even after I’m gone. Ultimately, that’s good for customers. Because the time invested in learning and using Voice Dream apps is more valuable than the subscription fee, and that time could be wasted if the company has no future.
My hope is that you understand – even if in a small measure – where I’m coming from. When you subscribe to Reader for macOS, you’ll be paying for a high-quality, feature-rich and sustainable product that will continue to improve. You’ll also be helping to secure a future for Voice Dream as a company. And I and my team will always serve you diligently.