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The Subscription Buffet May Be Over

The Subscription Buffet May Be Over
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The Subscription Buffet May Be Over

The Subscription Buffet May Be Over

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An all-you-can-eat buffet can be glorious. (Um, at least before Covid-19.) Pay one price and get options to enjoy roast beef, pizza, green beans, chocolate fountain and more. It’s gluttony made easy.

Many digital service subscriptions work the same way. Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime typically charge a fee for accessing a collection of goodies.

There are signs, however, that all-you-can-eat digital subscriptions are becoming more nuanced. Some companies, including Disney and Whole Foods, the Amazon-owned grocery chain, charge subscribers more for compelling extras. Others, including Spotify and YouTube, are experimenting with cheaper subscriptions with trade-offs. Both strategies can show that the endless digital buffet is changing for good.

I don’t know if the subscription strategies will hold up, or how we might react to having more choices. Maybe you would like the option to pay less at the buffet because you always skip dessert or pay a little more for the filet mignon. Or it could ruin the sheer appeal of the buffet.

Either way, we should get used to more experiences. This week, The Verge reported that Spotify and YouTube are trying out cheaper subscription deals with limitations. YouTube, which charges $ 12 a month in the United States for its commercial-free video and music service, is testing an offer in some European countries at less than half the regular price. This offer excludes some of the typical features paid customers receive, including the ability to download a video for later when you don’t have an internet connection. Spotify is also experimenting with a limited offer for as little as 99 cents per month compared to a typical monthly subscription of $ 10.

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Disney is going the other way, charging a premium for Disney + streaming subscribers who want to watch some of its new movies at home. Bloomberg News reported this week that Whole Foods is testing a delivery charge of $ 9.95 in select U.S. cities. So far, Whole Foods and the Amazon’s Fresh grocery service have generally not charged additional delivery fees to Prime members. (Fresh apparently won’t require a separate delivery charge. I don’t understand either.)

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

Most of the time, however, these companies have a relatively simple one-price proposition for everything they offer. And there are potential risks when companies stray from the model at will. People who already pay for Prime or Disney + may feel ripped off when asked to pay even more. Lower-cost subscription options could attract high-price users.

One of Netflix’s overlooked superpowers is that there is (mostly) only one version, with no add-ons for sports or novelty movies, or different prices with and without ads. The simplicity of a single subscription offer eliminates the need to evaluate a bunch of options before deciding to sign up.

But the benefit of adding more subscription permutations is that they can give more people what they want. I don’t pay for a Spotify subscription, but I might be tempted to pay a little less even if I don’t get the full benefits of paid members. I could also imagine that an electronica fan could like a cheaper Spotify subscription that only includes the music they are likely to listen to.

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It might sound like online subscriptions have been around forever, but this is a relatively new and constantly evolving feature of online life. I’m still not convinced that subscribing to everything is the best route, whether it’s for our wallets or for businesses and people trying to make a living online.

But it makes sense that subscription offers are starting to fragment because not everyone wants the same. We might get more exactly what we want, and we risk missing out on the gluttony with ease.


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  • Self-driving cars aren’t common, but they’ve already changed the job market: The rest of the world is examining how outsourced labor has been altered as fleets of people in low-income countries train software to think more like human drivers – and that includes tasks like labeling digital images of water drops. (My colleague Cade Metz has also written about all the humans needed to teach artificial intelligence software.)

  • In today’s episode of “Technology Isn’t Magic”: Software algorithms meant to help hospitals quickly diagnose coronavirus patients or predict how sick they might become have generally not made a difference and some may have made matters worse, reports the MIT Technology Review.

    Related: Peanut the robot waiter is doing his job badly.

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I’m in love with it horse dancing and prancing to nightclub music. (Here’s more on Mopsi and his human rider Steffen Peters at the Olympics.)


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