Adobe and I go way back. I don't remember the first copy of Photoshop I bought, but it was in the early `90s. I want to say it was version 4.0. And I've been buying its design program, InDesign, since way back when it was known as Aldus Pagemaker. For the past three upgrade cycles, I've bought licenses to Adobe's Master Collection, essentially licenses to every design application it makes. Before that, I often upgraded to its Design Collection.
So, like most everyone else on the Internet it seems, I was furious when Adobe announced this week that it will no longer let you buy its products. Now, with the Adobe Creative Cloud, you can only rent them.
Adobe says this change is needed to allow it to deliver improvements continuously. It's a principle I support. A couple of years ago, ebooks, for example, were just electronic versions of regular books that you had to read on a dedicated black-and-white device. Now, thanks to the iPad and other tablets, they can be interactive, beautifully-designed works that incorporate HD video.
As a nature photographer who's coping with a collapsing market for prints – led by the building bust – and ever shrinking image licensing fees, I believe self-published ebooks, providing they're well done, can help offset some of that lost income and introduce nature to a whole new audience. I would gladly support rapid development of tools that made producing those books easier.
The problem is, I don't believe Adobe. And its new pricing scheme holds individual hostage, not unlike the way sports teams hold cities hostage for ever more luxurious stadiums. Let me explain.
Ever since Adobe began selling packages of applications as a suite, its business has become much more cyclical. If you're wowed by the features in a new release, you're likely to upgrade sooner rather than later. For Adobe, that results in a lot of cash when a new suite is released and a trickle in the months leading up to the next expected release.
If you work full-time at a job, imagine that only a couple of your paychecks each year provided the bulk of your annual salary. The rest of the checks are virtually worthless. Some weeks, you don't even get a check. (It is a bit of an exaggeration, I know, but I think it helps to illustrate the true problem Adobe is trying to solve.)
As an individual, this is fine if you're great at managing money. But businesses do better at maximizing profits with a steadier cash flow. That is, cash comes in at a more constant rate and the amount flowing in at any time is always more than what flows out to pay expenses.
With steady cash flow as the goal, you can see why it's so important that Adobe move everyone to a system where they pay a monthly fee. If you don't believe me, ask anyone in accounting. Or review Adobe's quarterly earning statements for the past few years.
Making financial matters even more difficult for Adobe, the industry is maturing and it's harder to come up with new "wow" features. Some of the graphic design companies I work with are happy to use old versions of the software, so Adobe doesn't get annual revenue from them even under the old system. Meantime, it has to continually update applications, like Photoshop, to support new digital camera, file formats, and modern expectations.
So I understand Adobe's situation. I understand how it feels the current licensing system isn't working.
But the new licensing system doesn't work for me. It gives Adobe all the power in this business relationship. It gives Adobe what I think of as "greedy sports team power."
I live near Seattle and I've seen this dynamic play out many, many times. Our baseball team decided it needed a new stadium, so we had to build it one so it wouldn't leave town. Our football team actually did leave town briefly for a few days. We agreed to implode a stadium we were still paying for and build it a new one. We lost our basketball team several years ago when we couldn't find a way to build a new arena fast enough. Our city is now trying to snag a basketball team from another city that's been dragging its feet in ponying up for a new arena.
In each of those cases, the team had all the power. Give us what you want, or we'll leave you with nothing. After the Sonics left town, its arena, declared "state of the art" by the NBA barely more than a decade ago, now sits vacant most of the time.
And that's what I fear with Adobe's new licensing scheme. At first, $50 a month – even less for the first year! – sounds reasonable. It's actually a bit less than what I have been paying.
But what when Adobe decides it wants more. What if it wants $75 a month? Or $100 a month? Or $200 a month? With the new Adobe Creative Cloud you lock in the price for a year and you're free to cancel on your anniversary date. But are you really?
If you decide to stop paying the monthly fee, you lose all access to the Adobe applications. Want to make a tiny edit to one of the layers in a Photoshop file you've spent hours on? You're out of luck. What to make a quick adjustment to a video you spent weeks editing? Out of luck again. You will either have to give Adobe whatever crazy amount of money it demands or start over from scratch in a totally new software package that may or may not offer similar features.
And what about those constant upgrades? For the past year, Adobe has offered two versions of its software: a constantly upgraded Creative Cloud for people willing to pay the monthly fee and a perpetual license to Creative Suite for the rest of us. Take a look at the exclusive upgrades Creative Cloud users got. There was a new version of Adobe Acrobat that gives Creative Cloud members the ability to covert PDFs into PowerPoint slides, among other minor features. There was also an Illustrator update that makes it easier to package design files for printing. Those were the highlights in a year when Adobe had a tremendous incentive to deliver meaningful improvements for its monthly customers. What kind of improvements will there be when you have to pay a monthly fee just to use the software, meaningful improvements or not?
Adobe is reportedly considering a compromise that would allow you to convert your files to a different format even if you decided to cancel your monthly subscription. Even that wouldn't address the real problem, which is that the time you spent in Adobe's products developing the underlying design of your underlying works is still held hostage. Your ability to make even a simple change to any part of the underlying recipe would be lost.
With Adobe Creative Cloud, you have no power to compel the company to do anything. As long as enough design firms or other customers are willing to pay the monthly fee, it doesn't need you and there's no reason to at all for it to give you features you need or access to work you've created with its products.
Your work becomes Seattle's KeyArena. It was once considered a fine basketball arena. It now sits useless most of the year.