Pushbullet and the danger of going 'Pro'

Asking users to pay for a popular service is fine -- but something about the way Pushbullet's going about it is rubbing people the wrong way.

Pushbullet Pro
JR Raphael, IDG

At the end of the day, everyone has to make money.

It's something we don't like to talk about, but it's an undeniable truth: Whether you're an app developer, a gigantic search company, or even just a lowly writer penning articles about Android, you've gotta earn a paycheck if you want to keep doing what you're doing. Welcome to the real world -- right?

With that in mind, it's hard to be shocked when a popular free service starts charging users for "premium"-level features. We've seen it happen a billion times before -- and when a company does it right, the grumbling usually goes away pretty quickly and the people who value the service pony up the cash. The choice is either that or the company finding an alternate way to generate income, which might end up being even worse for its users.

That's why I'm struggling to sort out my feelings on this morning's news that Pushbullet is shifting to a "freemium"-style model as of December 1st. In short, some of the app's functionality will continue to be free -- but in order to get the full set of features available to everyone today, you'll have to put 40 bucks a year into the developers' pockets.

I think my struggle to accept this is stretched across a couple different areas. Part of it is the way the change was presented, as my pal Phil Nickinson emphatically explored over at Android Central. Something about that just doesn't leave me feeling good about forking over my money for this effort.

But the bigger part of it, I think, is the value proposition involved: Plain and simple, 40 bucks a year ain't cheap for an app of this caliber. Especially when you consider what you're getting -- which is, quite literally, what you already had before. While Pushbullet is encouraging its users to "upgrade" to the new Pro level, what it's presenting isn't really an upgrade for those who pay but rather a downgrade for those who don't. Instead of adding new features to make the subscription seem like you're getting something extra in exchange for your support, the company is taking away features from non-paying users and requiring a subscription to maintain the same experience you have right now.

It's all a matter of perception, to be sure -- but perception is everything in situations like this. Just look at how Feedly went about a similar transition, with a very similar pricing system, and left everyone feeling warm and fuzzy about its service and its money-earning arrangement.

Let me say it again: I have no problem paying for apps and services I appreciate. Heck, I actually enjoy supporting good developers, and I frequently encourage others to do the same. Realistically speaking, that's the only way an ecosystem can flourish and high-quality work can continue. But all around, the way Pushbullet is going about this transition makes it hard to accept without having a bit of a bad taste in your mouth.

Digging deeper

More broadly speaking, the risk a change like this presents is that it forces everyone to think carefully about an app's value and its necessity in one's work flow. In doing so, it's occurred to me that I liked Pushbullet a heck of a lot more before this summer's big refresh, in which the app moved from being a bridge between devices to being -- in the company's words -- "a universal messenger." Pushbullet was great because it focused on doing a few things really simply and really well. I don't need Yet Another Messaging Service (or Yet Another Social Network), and I feel like the addition of that functionality caused the app to lose a lot of the focus and simplicity that made it so special.

Pushbullet's strengths, to me, were how ridiculously easy it made it to perform tasks like beaming a link or file to another phone (something my wife and I use with each other all the time) or creating a "universal clipboard" that works across multiple devices (something I often appreciate when bouncing between a computer and my phone). Those functions are still present, of course, but they now kind of get lost in this big mishmash of an app that's trying to be too many things to too many people. In terms of the app's UI, they feel like supplementary functions buried within a cluttered chat platform -- and that doesn't exactly make for a great user experience.

Pushbullet Evolution

Pushbullet's evolution from cross-device bridge to universal messaging app (screenshots courtesy blog.pushbullet.com)

The best apps tend to be the ones that understand focus and simplicity -- or at the very least, that make a complicated process seem simple to the end user. Pushbullet used to be a perfect example of that. I hope it one day manages to corral its ambitions and rediscover that balance, because there are some fantastically useful ideas floating around in what's become a scattered hodgepod of semi-related functions and superfluous filler.

The test: Think how you would describe Pushbullet to a friend who's never heard of it. I suspect any such effort would either ignore the newer chatting/social functions entirely -- which is weird, since those come across as the core element of the app in day-to-day use -- or attempt to discount them entirely ("it does x, y, and z -- oh, and it also has a bunch of chatting stuff in it, but you can just ignore that and work around it").

That pretty much says it all. And that's precisely what I'm mulling over as I evaluate whether this app, as it stands now, is valuable enough to me to be worth its new cost.

Unless you're damn-near sure how your users will respond to such a thought process, that's a dangerous question to encourage them to consider.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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