May 6, 2018

Why enterprise software is switching to subscription-based pricing

Business Intelligence and other enterprise software vendors are switching to subscription pricing en masse. Microsoft probably championed the shift when they introduced Office 365 and Power BI. Tableau recently announced switching to a subscription-based pricing model. At the time of writing this article the monthly fee for Tableau Desktop Professional was $70. Qlik and some other BI vendors have introduced subscriptions as well.

While software vendors are apparently pushing the trend, the customers sometimes have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, the significant reduction of upfront licensing costs makes rolling out new software deployments faster and with less risk -- you can start with purchasing only a few licenses and see how it goes. In the worst case, you just cancel the subscription instead of turning expensive licenses into shelfware.

On the other hand, in the long run subscription based pricing appears to be more expensive. In the previous pricing model, Tableau Desktop Professional cost $1999 paid once. I don't remember what was the maintenance fee, but for the industry the typical rate is 20-25% per year. If we assume 25% maintenance, in 5 years the total cost of ownership would be $3998 per user, while under the new subscription model the cost will be $4200. In a 10 year term the difference becomes even more significant - $6500 vs $8400 per user, at least on paper.

Is switching to subscription-based pricing just a marketing gimmick to squeeze more money out of customers? I don't think so, and here is why:

First of all, in a highly competitive market vendors can't squeeze more money from customers simply because a) competition won't miss a chance to undercut pricing, and b) the amount of money (market size) remains the same, no matter what pricing model is applied.

If so, why the change? As someone who runs a company that also employs a subscription based model, I believe the answer is sustainability.

The problem with the one-time pricing model is that it came from the times of industrialization, when the economy was based on physical, tangible goods. It's not the only business pattern that has been inherited from that epoch. The 8-hour workday from 9 to 5, and the need to commute to the workplace every workday have also originated from those times, because you know it was kind of problematic to do industrial-scale cast iron melting working remotely from home. Everybody needed to be at the factory and work hard with their hands.

Producing physical, tangible goods required lots of materials and some labor too. In the cost structure, the part of materials was typically much bigger than the cost of labor. Therefore, one-time pricing in such economy was logical because the cost was mostly driven by materials.

In the modern, post-industrialization economy some of the old models don't work well anymore. For many knowledge-based professions, such as software development, working fixed hours 9 to 5 or commuting to the office every day is becoming increasingly irrelevant, if not counter-productive.

A similar thing is happening with pricing models too. Labor by its nature is subscription-based, because an employee isn't get paid a lump sum of money upfront and then is expected to work forever without additional pay. Instead, s/he is paid a salary which is basically a monthly or weekly subscription to the worker's services.

In software development cost, labor comprises the biggest share. Therefore the expense structure for a company is predominantly of subscription nature. At the same time, having revenue structure that is based on one-time payments introduces financial instability and risk that needed to be offset by higher pricing and/or more conservative product development strategy.

With that in mind, switching to subscription model totally makes sense for software vendors as it allows to offset subscription-based expenses with subscription-based revenue and achieve better financial sustainability for the company. It also works well for the customers, as the vendors can now be less conservative in R&D spending which means that users will receive better products sooner.