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Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Subscription Buffet May Be Over

IDBS ART GALLERY

An all-you-can-eat buffet can be fantastic. (At least prior to Covid-19.) Pay a single price and choose from roast beef, pizza, green beans, a chocolate fountain, and other options. It’s gluttony simplified.

Many digital service subscriptions work in the same way. Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime typically charge a single fee for access to a variety of benefits.

However, there are signs that all-you-can-eat digital subscriptions are becoming more nuanced. Some companies, such as Disney and Whole Foods, an Amazon-owned grocery chain, charge subscribers more for compelling extras. Others, such as Spotify and YouTube, are experimenting with lower-cost subscriptions that come with trade-offs. Both strategies may indicate that the never-ending digital buffet is changing for the better.

I’m not sure if the subscription strategies will stick, or how we’ll react to having more options. Perhaps you’d like the option of paying less at the buffet because you never eat dessert, or paying a little more for fillet mignon. Or it could detract from the buffet’s overall appeal.

In any case, we should become accustomed to more experiments. The Verge reported this week that both Spotify and YouTube are experimenting with lower-priced subscription offers with limitations. YouTube, which charges $12 per month in the United States for its ad-free video and music service, is testing a deal in some European countries at less than half the usual rate. This offer excludes some of the standard features that paying customers receive, such as the ability to download a video for later viewing when you won’t have access to the internet. Spotify is also experimenting with a limited offering for as little as 99 cents per month, versus a typical $10 monthly subscription.

Disney is taking the opposite approach, charging extra for Disney+ streaming subscribers who want to watch some of its newly released movies at home. According to Bloomberg News, Whole Foods is testing a $9.95 delivery fee in some U.S. cities. Until now, both Whole Foods and Amazon’s Fresh grocery service did not charge Prime members an additional delivery fee. (It appears that Fresh will not require a separate delivery fee.) I don’t understand it either.)

Many all-you-can-eat digital subscription services are already nuanced, with higher prices for households with more devices and lower-cost subscriptions with limitations in some low-income countries.

However, for the most part, these businesses have a straightforward proposition of a single price for everything they provide. And there are risks when businesses abandon the all-you-can-eat model. People who already pay for Prime or Disney+ may feel taken advantage of if they are asked to pay even more. Lower-cost subscription options may entice users who have previously paid full price.

One of Netflix’s underappreciated strengths is that there is (mostly) only one version, with no add-ons for sports or new releases, or different prices with and without commercials. The ease of use of a single subscription offer eliminates the need to weigh a plethora of options before deciding to sign up.

However, the benefit of adding more subscription permutations is that they may offer more people what they want. I don’t pay for a Spotify subscription, but I might be tempted if I could pay a little less even if I don’t get all of the perks that full paying members do. I can also imagine that an electronica fan would prefer a cheaper Spotify subscription that only includes the music he is likely to listen to.

Although it may appear that online subscriptions have been around for a long time, they are a relatively new and still evolving feature of online life. I’m still not convinced that subscriptions to everything are the best option, for either our wallets or the businesses and individuals attempting to make a living online.

However, it is understandable that subscription offers will begin to fragment because not everyone wants the same thing. We may get more of what we want, and we may come to miss the gluttony simplified.


To solve our most pressing issues, humanity’s collective power is required. But, as my Opinion colleague Farhad Manjoo points out, “what if humanity’s ability to cooperate has been undermined by the very technology that we thought would bring us all together?”

Self-driving cars aren’t yet commonplace, but they’ve already altered the labour market: The rest of the world looks at how outsourced work has changed as lower-income countries train software to think more like human drivers — including tasks like labelling digital images of drops of water. (My colleague Cade Metz has also written about all of the humans required to teach AI software.)

In today’s instalment of “technology is not magic,” we look at: According to MIT Technology Review, software algorithms designed to help hospitals quickly diagnose coronavirus patients or predict how sick they might become did not make a difference in the majority of cases, and in some cases may have made matters worse.

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