It's not easy being an app developer. Folks don't want to pay for things. Piracy of apps remains a real problem. And many apps aren't just a thing on a phone but rather are a thing on your phone that requires a good bit of support behind the scenes. And that last part is a continuing expenditure for app devs.
So it's not a huge surprise that Pushbullet Pro — a paid subscription for the popular app that helps bridge the gap between your phone and your computer — is now a thing. For $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year (you save $20 by paying up front) you'll get "features worth paying for." And that's certainly true seeing as how a few of those features previously were free and no longer will be.
But the way that Pushbullet presented the necessity of its Pro service is just shy of appalling.
Consider Pushbullet's explanation from co-founder and CEO Ryan Oldenburg:
Pushbullet costs money to run so the question is, how should Pushbullet pay its bills? We have chosen optional paid accounts because we believe this ensures the best Pushbullet for everyone.
Pushbullet users understandably have a bad taste in their mouths today. A cardinal sin of serving customers in general (to say nothing of app development) is taking features away — worse is requiring that users start paying for them. Certainly that wasn't an easy decision to make, though, and I'm fine giving Pushbullet the benefit of the doubt on that one. They do have bills to pay, and an optional subscription model is a good one. Any number of apps I use either have an annual subscription, or ask you to pay for a premium version. Moving some free features under that umbrella is tough, but understandable. And if you're Pushbullet, you make that call, and you deal with the heat.
It's the next paragraph from Pushbullet's explainer that would be enough to get me to steer clear forever:
We could have kept Pushbullet completely free, following the path of many free services by showing ads and selling data to make money. We don't want to do that. We never want to hurt the Pushbullet experience with ads or betraying your trust by selling your data. Since Pushbullet must support itself, we want to do that by having you as our customer.
That's some mafia-level shit right there. First, it plays off the trope that advertising is evil, and your "data" is this singular thing there for the selling. It's not quite that simple. (Though that's not to say I don't have serious issues with the state of the advertising industry right now.) Don't want to put crappy-looking ads in your app? Great. I'm willing to pay for that.
Pushbullet's explanation of why you should pay them is just shy of being a shakedown.
But Pushbullet's explanation here is one step removed from a couple connected guys knocking on your door with a baseball bat. "All that 'data' you've been giving us all this time for free? It'd sure be a shame if we had to sell it to keep our lights on. You wouldn't want us to have to do that, would you?"
Pushbullet has done a lot of things right during its lifetime, building a decent user base — it's in the 1 million to 5 million downloads category on Google Play — on an impressive service. It's one I'd have no problem paying for. But CEO Oldenburg's explanation of why you should pay for the new Pushbullet Pro is damned close to being considered a shakedown. I don't think that's what was intended. But that's what was said.
And in an era in which we're willingly giving over more and more of our digital selves in the name of service, it's ever more important for companies to take our data seriously and to treat it responsibly, whether or not we're paying them for the privilege.