Count the number of companies you pay regularly for anything. Add up what you pay for all of them. Then think about the time you spend trying and failing to “manage” any of it—especially when most or all of the management tools are separately held by every outfit’s subscription system, all for their convenience rather than yours. And worse: rigged with gimmicks (e.g. free trials) that depend on you forgetting what the subscription actually costs over time. And then think about how in most cases you also need to swim upstream against a tide of promotional BS and manipulation, much of which is rigged to fuzz you into weary agreement to a “deal” you wouldn’t want if you could get your head around the whole thing.

There is an industry on the corporate side of this, and won’t fix itself. That would be like asking AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy to fix the online service business in 1994. (For those not familiar with the reference, those companies were incompatible competing commercial forerunners of the Internet, which obsolesced all of them. The relevance here is that the Internet is the platform under all other platforms, and the only level playing field under every marketplace.)

There are plenty of services that claim to work on our side: Truebill, Trim, Bobby, Money Dashboard, Mint, Subscript Me, BillTracker Pro, Trim, Subby, Card Due, Sift, SubMan, and Subscript Me are a few. The big e-commerce platforms—Paypal, Amazon, Apple —all have tools at those links. Google does too, in a way, with Google Sheets and Google Doc templates. But of these are too narrow, too closed, too dependent on your personal financial data, too exposed to the surveillance imperatives of corporate giants, too vested in the status quo, or some combination of any or all of those. None are as personal and independent as your spreadsheet, your word processor, your email client. There are basic and common designs to all of those, and standards as well, that make it possible for them to be personal, private, and substitutable

So instead we have a status quo that sucks (see here, or just look up subscription hell), and it’s way past time to unscrew it. But how?

The better question is where?

The answer to that is on our side: the customer’s side. In fact, subscriptions are just one of many market problems that can only be solved from the customers’ side. The main reason they can’t be solved from the companies’ side because they’ll all do it differently. Also, most of them will want to hold you captive, just like Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy did with online services before the Internet solved the problem that was them.

Another is the monopoly bundling problem. We have that today with what we still call “TV” but is now a competing set of bundled subscriptions. The transition to the new status quo began when droves of people started “cutting the cord” to their monopoly cable or satellite utility’s bundle of channels and buying the same and better programming (and bundles) from “over the top” (OTT) subscription services provided over the Net rather than inside cable channels. Netflix was the biggest early OTT subscription provider, but now every source of flat-screen entertainment “content” (no longer just “programming”) is its own separate monopoly of captive content. Apple, Amazon, Disney, HBO, Paramount, Showtime, Netflix, Hulu, and NBC’s Peacock, are just the tip of the bundle berg. Blurring the lines between many of these are monopolies within monopolies, such as you get (perhaps with a bundle, perhaps not) with Disney’s ABC, ESPN, TNT and so on. (Its properties are legion.) Parts of those may or may not be available to you over the Net only if you already subscribe to a cable bundle. That’s what you get, for example with MSGGo, and NESN, which you access to some major New York and New England sports games and related entertainment—provided you can authenticate to their OTT streams over the Net by proving you still have a cable subscription that includes their channel or channels. While you can look across and manage access to some or all of them through Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire, you lack your own way to watch and pay for any of these on a direct and á la carte basis.

I’m not saying here that there is anything wrong with subscriptions. I am saying the online world would be a lot more free and productive economically if optionality was maximized with tools and services working on behalf of customers operating in markets where “free” doesn’t mean “your choice of captors.”

We should be able to buy content for sale on both á la carte and subscription bases using our own standards-based tools and third-party services that work for us at scale across all providers. For subscriptions that means being able to make, cancel and keep track of subscriptions in our own normalized ways. I have no doubt that this will produce a much larger overall economy while greatly reducing friction for everyone.

Now to how.

The short answer is with open standards, code, and protocols. The longer answer is to start with a punch list of requirements, based on what we, as customers, need most. So, we should—

  • Be able to see all our subscriptions, what they cost, and when they start and end
  • Be able to cancel or renew, manually or automatically, in the simplest possible ways
  • Get the best possible prices
  • Have clear and standardized ways of seeing á la carte options and in some cases offering our own ways (and prices) to pay for them
  • Be able to keep records of subscriptions and histories
  • Show our actual (rather than coerced) loyalty
  • Be able to provide constructive help, as loyal and experienced customers
  • Join in collectives—commons—of other customers to start normalizing the way subscriptions should be offered on the corporate side and managed on the personal side
  • Be able to hire substitutable intermediaries, or brokers (a service that TrueBill and Trim provide) without buying into their exclusive system

Meanwhile, it’s important to also consider where customers stand in the tug-of-war between subscription and á la carte options in both pricing and payment. Because á la carte is what customers would prefer in cases where use is occasional rather than constant.

Years ago at ProjectVRM we came up with an idea for this called EmanciPay. Dave Winer imagines that as a business he calls An EZ-Pass for news:

Not micropayments. Tolls instead of paywalls. 
If I don’t have an E-Z Pass, no access. If I do, it’s seamless.
Suppose one month I spend $84 to read stories on The Atlantic. They can make me an offer to subscribe. Look dude, you’re wasting money. Let us help you.
That’s a lot nicer than — hey asshole you can’t read this article unless you subscribe.

That third point is especially important: that you may make more money from simplified á la carte payments (based on actual use) than from subscriptions, especially if your goods are valuable but not of a kind that a customer would prefer to deal with as a subscription.

So there are really two goals here. One is to fix how subscriptions work for everybody. The other is to make it as easy as possible to pay for á la carte usage or consumption.

The modified image above is a Doctor Who TARDIS console, photographed by Chris Sampson, offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license, published here, and obtained via Wikimedia Commons, here. We thank Chris for making it available.