Billings and Marketcircle: The Subscription Transformation

Back at the end of June, I received a press release from Toronto-based developers Marketcircle, the team behind the acclaimed Mac business app Daylite (which I recently reviewed right here on Mac.AppStorm), stating that Billings would be discontinued and that Billings Pro would be offered in its place. It took me a while (and a couple of reads through the e-mail) to actually process what was going on and, more importantly, what it would mean for me seeing as I was a keen Billings user.

For those of you who don’t know, Billings is a great time-tracking and invoicing application aimed towards freelancers. Not only can you keep track of all your clients (and bill them for your services) but you’ve also got access to some pretty powerful reporting tools (these are especially useful when it comes to filling out your tax return) and the app will also keep track of all your unpaid invoices, reminding you when any are overdue.

I use Billings extensively for my Envato work as, out of all the Mac applications I’ve tried, it seems to me to be the most feature-rich and doesn’t come with a steep learning curve that other similar applications seem to possess. But its discontinuation came as a bit of a surprise to me, especially as I have been using it for nearly 3 years now without any problems or complaints.

According to Marketcircle’s CEO, Alykhan Jetha, the decision to ditch Billings in favour of Billings Pro was a reaction to their customers:

As customers have become more sophisticated, most are now requesting the features already in Billings Pro.

So, before we go on, let’s take a look at what’s different in the Pro version of Billings.

What’s Different?

On the surface, Billings Pro looks essentially the same as Billings, and existing users will have no issues with migrating. The layout of the Mac application is still the same, and all the features that were present within Billings are in the Pro version as well.

Billings Pro is essentially the same as Billings with a few more added features.

Billings Pro is essentially the same as Billings with a few more added features.

What is different, though, with Billings Pro is the implementation of cloud synchronization. Now, instead of having your data sat around on your Mac’s hard disk drive, it is uploaded to Marketcircle’s own cloud service, meaning that you can access it from a variety of devices. Billings included a companion iPhone application (available at extra cost) that allowed you to sync with your Mac over the local network (and this was temperamental at times) so I do welcome the cloud sync feature across devices. You can also manage your account from any computer via their web interface and an iPad version is in the works, due to be released soon.

The iPad version of Billings Pro is currently in closed beta.

The iPad version of Billings Pro is currently in closed beta.

There is also tighter integration with Daylite, another Marketcircle product, as well as a variety of third-party accounting software, such as QuickBooks, MoneyWorks and Credit Card Terminal, so you can accept payments for your services from credit cards directly on your iPhone. The web-based interface means you can manage your Marketcircle Cloud account from any computer — so you can add and delete users from wherever you are.

You can manage all the users of your Marketcircle Cloud account online.

You can manage all the users of your Marketcircle Cloud account online.

Although I can see the use of the Pro features for freelancers who work in a variety of different locations, I personally feel that they are an unnecessary expense for all those people who, like me, work from a fixed location and aren’t that bothered about having their data across multiple devices. As you’ve probably noticed, the “most” term in the quote from CEO Jetha certainly doesn’t apply to me here.

Marketcircle Isn’t Alone

Marketcircle’s transition to a subscription-based platform seems to epitomise the approach that many developers are now starting to take towards their pricing plans. Much like in-app purchases on iOS, which have both their admirers and haters, they provide developers with a constant revenue stream and makes it easier to forecast cash flow and predict future earnings.

Adobe, most notably, adopted this approach with its Creative Suite range of products (named “Creative Cloud”), with monthly subscriptions starting from $49.99, however the reaction to this transformation was both immediate and critical (it even prompted our Editor, Matthew Guay, to write an open letter to Adobe). Many users complained at the excessive cost, especially when it is considered that a subscriber is essentially “renting” the program from Adobe and not purchasing it outright, as well as the pricing differences between the U.S. (where a subscription costs $49.99 monthly) and Europe (in the UK, where I am based, Creative Cloud starts from £46.88, or $71, monthly).

Adobe's Creative Cloud was released in May to both applause and criticism.

Adobe’s Creative Cloud was released in May to both applause and criticism.

We are, however, seeing the future here with these subscription-based services as software shifts from the traditional home of a hard disk drive to a cloud-enabled server, with “software as a service” being the new trend for 2013. And it’s unfair to single out Adobe; Microsoft also adapted a similar approach with Office 365, although unlike Adobe it will still (as of now, anyway) will retain its desktop versions (Adobe has since discontinued them — CS6 was the last desktop release of Creative Suite).

Time Will Tell

Whether or not Marketcircle’s decision was the correct one will only be told by the test of time. Billings won’t drop off the radar yet — anyone still using the program can expect support right up till the end of June 2014 — but don’t be expecting any new updates or improvements, either. Sure, the transition is a disappointment to someone like me, upon whom the new features of Billings Pro are, in short, wasted, but I think that Marketcircle really have embraced the future now. The concept of paying for a piece of software monthly is certainly a new one, but one that I think more developers will adopt in the second half of 2013 onwards.

We pay for other things via subscription — think of any mobile phone contract, for example — so why software can’t be included with this is a mystery for me. One thing I do hope though (and in some cases I’m still longing after) is choice. Sure, all those fancy features are well worth mentioning (and, in some cases, paying for) but for a simple Joe like me, I want the basic offering without being tied down to a contract or to see my bank account drained every month. Sadly though, I may be in the minority here, and I fear that going forward, my cries will go forever unanswered.