How the Apple iOS store creates a murky path for software development
Medibang Paint is a robust drawing and painting app. Since 2015, Medibang has offered free versions of their software on Apple iOS, Android and desktop. The app’s greatest strength has been its ease of use with a key emphasis on specialized tools for manga and comic art creation. As an added benefit, users who signed up for a free Medibang account had unlimited access to cloud storage and extra downloadable brushes, textures, and other design elements. If this sounds too good to be true, it was.
By April 2018, over 20 million users had downloaded Medibang Paint and many took advantage of the free and unlimited online management of all their work, creating numerous cloud-based collections.
When free comes at a cost
On September 2, 2021, many Medibang Paint users woke up to being locked out of their work. Apps that auto-updated or were manually updated by users who were curious about the new premium experience quickly discovered they could no longer access their cloud work if they exceeded a new 3GB cloud limit. These users got an error message stating they no longer had write permission to save a cloud-based file. Attempting to open a cloud-based file resulted in an image that was flattened to one layer. Users who have exceeded the 3GB limit also received messaging that their cloud files would be deleted if they not pay for an annual premium plan starting at around $22 USD/year.
Other limitations include disabling PSD file format exports for non-premium users and losing previous paid ad-ons. Even ads have returned for those of us who previously paid to remove them. Below is an image of the error message when attempting to export your work as a PSD file. Note that there is small text at the bottom saying that there is a two-month trail period that you can use your premium plan for free before you’re charged. This is at least some good news for current users that want to access their work without being charged but it’s the wrong approach for creating a good overall user experience. When you lock access to people’s artwork, can they trust you to not charge them after selecting a premium plan?
Freeware becomes ransomware
Holding people’s work hostage for payment is never a good look for a company. Many would agree that companies have the right to change the terms of service whenever they want. What’s problematic about this switch from freeware to a paid service is that the users weren’t given proper notice. Locking people out of their work and demanding payment for access isn’t a positive way for building proper stewardship with your user base. This action does not build a sense of community or trust.
Could this all have been avoided?
The simple answer is YES; the damage could have been lessened for Medibang’s reputation and they could have received a more positive response from users if there was more transparency and communication.
When a Medibang user logs on to their account through the app or the web, a confirmation email is sent. Medibang has access to our user emails and could have sent sent email notifications months in advance outlining changes to terms and services and what that means to end users. Not to put words in Medibang’s mouth, but they could have plead their case for a need to start charging users since maintaining unlimited cloud storage isn’t cost effective for them as a company. Also they could have discussed how this switch to a paid model would impact the growth and vision of the app. Paying for proper development is crucial to the growth of software and educating users builds awareness/support.
The weeks leading up to this premium debacle, Medibang hinted at a new offering called Medibang Paint Premium on their YouTube channel. What concerned me while watching the video was that the benefits listed for this paid premium version were all features currently available in the standard app. Like others that watch the software closely, I was worrisome as to what this mean for us as users. Many artists are not plugged into watching company announcements. This paid service soft launch caught many off guard.
Personally, I never understood Medibang Paint’s business model of offering everything—including unlimited cloud storage—for free. Like other users, I didn’t think twice about the future of the software and took advantage of having a great set of tools for my iPad. But a little part of me was concerned that everything being free would eventually affect Medibang’s app’s evolution. All software, even open source, has overhead and fees associated with their development.
I’m a firm believer in making sure developers have enough funding so they don’t have to worry about revenue and can focus on making excellent software. If Medibang would have been more honest about needing funding to keep the software alive, I believe most users would have been glad to give money. After all, we are all part of a community and that requires lifting one another up at times for all of us to suceed.
Maybe it was Medibang’s idea all along attract a number of dedicated users that they would eventually switch to paid subscribers. Even if that’s the case, I don’t fault them for that and I applaud the enourmous amount of downloads for their software. Building a user base also means building community—kind of like when people refer to the “cult of Apple.” There’s a reason why people become super users and evangelists; they believe in the product and the company. It’s a truly symbiotic relationship.
Is about $20USD/year too much?
Many users find paying a little more than $2 USD/month for software and storage more than acceptable. The real issue with this switch from freeware to paid service is having the changes happening with no prior notice or explanation. Existing users who work exclusively in the Medibang cloud and are unable to access, back up or move their work without paying an annual fee up front are in a real bind. That makes artists feel like their work is being held for ransom. Sometimes it’s less about paying the fee and more about the break in trust.
People have trusted this company with one of the most precious asset they own: their art. It would have been nice for Medibang to have offered existing registered users a grace period to access their work or back it up if needed instead of locking them out completely. Some of these users have multiple GBs of work on the cloud and need to purchase one of the larger annual plans just to gain access to all of their work.
Has the damage already been done?
This is going to be a lasting bruise for existing users, but I feel Medibang has an opportunity to reach out and make things right.
- To start, send an email existing users explaining their switch to a paid system and the move away from being freeware.
- Offer existing registered members a grace period to be able to access all of their work so that they can properly back it up.
- And in good faith, offer already registered members a discount for their annual plan. If you watch the Medibang video to the end, you’ll see there already is a 20% discount offer available. Sending out a better offer to existing members would be a great gesture.
These are people who have support the Medibang brand and it would be a gracious way of saying thanks. I think this would help people out significantly and aid in building back the trust we had in Medibang as a company.
Why feeding a developer matters
IOS apps typically have one-time purchases, subscription models or in-app bundle purchases. One-time purchases are great for users but don’t help developers. Once the app reaches a saturation level for user acquisition, there’s no new revenue coming in for further development. I rely greatly on one-time purchase apps like Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo for my work, but what happens when they reach their full market potential and revenue slows? Giving the developers the ability to have paid upgrades for major releases in the iOS store is essential for investing in the app’s longevity. What’s the point in having such a powerful device like an iPad Pro if the software is neglected; it’s like having a Rolls Royce on cinder blocks.
Many find subscriptions the new normal. One of the issues that I and many other artists have regarding subscriptions is having to pay to access any of our past work. As a result, I have stopped giving Adobe my money once Adobe Creative Suite became Adobe Creative Cloud. The thought of needing to perpetually pay for software just to be able to access my own artwork seems too ridiculous to comprehend.
In-app bundle purchases are ways for developers to create “upgrades” within the software so they can get continue a revenue stream to support development. These can be messy and confusing at times.
Apps like Procreate have been inventive and have offered in-app purchases for new tools that are currently in beta. All in all, having a more straight forward approach to offering upgrades and supporting developers in the iOS eco system would benefit everyone including Apple.
What Apple has done to help developers
In November 2020, Apple announced an App Store Small Business Program, slicing their steep 30% fee of app revenue/in-app purchases to 15% for any developers making under one million in sales annually. This sounds great in theory because this new lower fee percentage affects 98% of iOS app developers, but they only account for less than 5% of the iOS store’s annual revenue. The gesture seems grander than it is but it’s a start. Since most of Apple’s store revue only comes from about 2% of all app developers, this means they’re in no hurry to make changes to their current payment formats. Having an upgrade button I know would make my day and it would most certainly help feed our developers.
Open source in a closed system
Having a store with clearer pathways for upgrading and supporting developers would be excellent but we’re also missing out on powerful open-source software. Apps like Krita have been blocked from the iOS eco system because GPL (General Public License) software is not owned by their creator. It’s free code that’s open to everyone therefore apps like Krita do not adhere to the closed terms of Apple’s app store. developer agreement. This ultimately means that since iPad users can only download apps via the store, we’re limited to only options that conform with their closed business model. This is a major oversight and I wish that Apple could find a way to work with the open source community to come up with a solution.
The future of Medibang
It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming months with Medibang but I’m guessing not much. What would be ideal for everyone is acknowledgment that Medibang Paint Premium’s launch was not ideal, outline what the future looks like as a paid app and institute a grace period to help existing user access and back up their files. Ultimately, Medibang needs to make money to keep the app alive and users should be thankful for the time that they had to use the software for free, but the abruptness of this switch has left a lot of users with serious trust issues and tough decisions to make in the short term.
How this impacts me
I have been a big evangelist for Medibang over the past six years. I’ve created three coloring books exclusively using the software . Medibang has been my main drawing tool, using it both on Android and Apple tablets. I tried apps like Procreate but I have always gone back to Medibang because I just love the endless layers I can create and web storage option. Over the summer, I started using Comic Draw and really love the app. There’s a high probability that I’ll be upgrading to Medibang Paint Premium. It’s just a shame that such an amazing app has alienated their entire user base with a sloppy premium debut.