Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Latest Twist in the Java IDE Wars: Subscription-based IntelliJ IDEA

I've been watching with some interest the discussion surrounding this past week's announcement that JetBrains is moving to an Adobe-like and Microsoft Office-like software subscription licensing model. The feedback has been fast and furious and JetBrains has responded with a very brief follow-up post We are listening that is entirely reproduced in this quote: "We announced a new subscription licensing model and JetBrains Toolbox yesterday. We want you to rest assured that we are listening. Your comments, questions and concerns are not falling on deaf ears. We will act on this feedback."

There are several places to see the reaction, positive and negative, to this announcement. The feedback comments on both the original announcement post and on the follow-up post are good places to start. There are also Java subreddit threads JetBrains switches to subscription model for tools (101 comments currently) and Are you sticking with IntelliJ IDEA or you are moving on to another IDE? (180 comments currently). I was going to summarize some of the pros and cons of this announcement, but Daniel Yankowsky has done such a good job of this that I'll simply reference his post How JetBrains Lost Years of Customer Loyalty in Just a Few Hours.

After reading these posts, it is clear that the change announced by JetBrains would benefit some consumers but might cost other consumers more and, in some cases, quite a bit more. It all seems to depend on what each individual user actually uses and how he or she uses it. In many ways, this makes me think of my most recent Microsoft Office purchase. I purchased Microsoft Office 2013 for my new PC outright rather than via subscription. It would take 2-3 years of subscription payments to meet or exceed the one-time payment I made for Office, but I anticipate needing few new features in Office in the life of this computer. In fact, I have older versions of Microsoft Office running on older computers and am happy with them. It seems that subscriptions to any software product benefit those who need or strongly desire new functions and features and are more expensive for those who are happy with the current functionality set of a particular product. I personally like that Microsoft allows consumers to choose and either buy the software license outright or use a subscription. Having choice in the matter seems to be what's really best for the consumer.

JetBrains provides numerous tools for a wide variety of programming languages and frameworks, but there are also "substitute products" available for most of these. For example, in the Java world, IDEA competes with freely available open source competitors NetBeans and Eclipse. There is, of course, JetBrains's own freely available Community Edition of IDEA that can be seen as a substitute for the Java developer.

The fact that JetBrains can sell its IDEA IDE when there are good alternative Java IDEs available in NetBeans and Eclipse is evidence that many Java developers like what IntelliJ IDEA has to offer enough to pay for it. I am interested to see how the subscription model will affect this balance. JetBrains's relatively quick follow-up announcement indicates that they are considering at least some tweaks to the announced policy already.

Some of the arguments being made against the announcement seem to be out of principle rather than against the actual cost. The JetBrains Toolbox costs are shown currently to be $19.90/month (USD) for existing users to use all tools, just under $12 (USD) for existing uses of IntelliJ IDEA Ultimate Edition, and just under $8/month (USD) for existing users of WebStorm. Those who are not existing users can expect to pay a bit more per month.

One mistake I think was made in the announcement is typical of consumer-facing companies: presenting a change that has obvious benefits for the vendor as if the change is being made primarily for the benefit of the consumer. Although there seems to be benefits for many of the consumers of this announcement, these changes also do not benefit a large number of consumers. There's no question these changes have advantages for JetBrains and it does seem difficult to believe that the changes were driven more by consumers' interests than out of the company's interests. It is not unusual for companies to present changes that benefit themselves as being made primarily in the consumers' interest, but that doesn't mean we like it to hear it presented like that. I think this tone can lead to people reacting negatively to the announcement out of principle.

There are also some interesting articles on software subscription pricing models. Joshua Brustein wrote in Adobe's Controversial Subscription Model Proves Surprisingly Popular that "[Adobe] is making more money selling monthly subscriptions to its Creative Cloud software—the family of programs that includes Photoshop and Illustrator—than it is by selling the software outright." In Software Makers' Subscription Drive, Sam Grobart wrote that "in 2013 consumer software companies proved they could pull off the switch from one-time software purchases to an online subscriber model that costs customers more long term." That article discusses the advantages and disadvantages of consumer software subscriptions from users' and sellers' perspectives.

I'll be watching developments related to JetBrains's announcement in the short-term and long-term to see what effects result from the change in licensing. I'm particularly interested in how this affects IntelliJ IDEA in the Java IDE/text editor space where IntelliJ IDEA Ultimate will continue to compete with IntelliJ IDEA Community Edition, NetBeans, Eclipse, JDeveloper, Sublime, and more.

2 comments:

@DustinMarx said...

In today's "Final update on the JetBrains Toolbox announcement," Maxim Shafirov summarizes and explains adjustments made to the subscription-based JetBrains Toolbox. It's my opinion that these changes indicate that JetBrains did consider feedback from different perspectives. I believe the proposed changes should provide a licensing approach that will fit most customers. There will always be things that some people might not like, but this newly adjusted approach seems to provide fair alternatives for those who prefer always having the latest versions of a single tool, those who want to switch between different tools regularly, and those who want to "upgrade" a particular tool or set of tools less often.

I don't want a damn blogger account said...

I agree that the adjustments seem like a reasonable compromise and I plan to continue to use IDEA.