Adobe lets you pay now and later and later again

— 9:26 AM on May 13, 2013

The time was January 1995. The smooth, Philly soul and pleated pants of Boyz II Men ruled the airwaves. I had finally, seven months after ending my academic wanderings, wrangled a full-time job. I owned a miniature pig named Elvis the Tiny King. Life was good.

But enough about my porcine past. That first job was at a small ad agency. I was their lone copywriter, a complement to their lone art director. Yes, much loneliness was afoot. Not surprisingly, the agency was a Mac shop. I believe I had the privilege of piloting a Centris 660AV while my graphics-crunching cohort had some form of Quadra, possibly a 610. Our DTP weapons of (very limited) choice: QuarkXPress 3.1 for page layout, Photoshop 3.0 (the first with layers) for image editing, and Illustrator 5.5 for recreating vector logos from client-provided GIF files.

This triumvirate of print production would remain de rigueur for several years. Sure, Adobe had PageMaker, which it had acquired from Aldus in 1994, but it never really posed a serious threat to the usurper Quark's hegemony. Adobe and Quark kept rolling out periodic updates, and the advertising and publishing industries dutifully upgraded as cash flow permitted. Which, I'd be willing to bet, wasn't as often as either company would have liked. That's foreshadowing.

Quark, drunk on money, power, and an estimated 90% market share, started behaving like a moneyed, power-hungry boor. It was slow to innovate, slow to fix bugs, offered poor customer service, and extracted premium fees for its products. Which wouldn't have been so intolerable if the first three issues, well, weren't. Adobe, never a company to turn its back on increased market share, decided it was time to bring page layout into the company in a way PageMaker never really could, and it launched InDesign 1.0 in 1999. But it wasn't until versions 2.0 (the first OS X version) and 3.0 (the first Creative Suite version) that InDesign really started hammering away at QuarkXPress's user base. (I couldn't find any current market share numbers between the two products, but anecdotally, I don't know any ad agencies still using QuarkXPress. I still see internal corporate communications departments running it from time to time, but even that is a rare spotting. Still, my sample size is small. That's not a euphemism.)

Today, Adobe runs a bit roughshod through the marketplace. Their Creative Suite of design/publishing/web/video products is now up version 6. Getting the loaded Master Suite of all 16 CS programs runs a nifty $2,599. This is not really an obscene amount if you're one of the 11 people who use most of the programs. Of course, you can also opt for smaller bundles of Adobe love with a Design, Web, Design & Web, or Production (as in video) collection. And these may or may not be offered in Premium and/or Extended versions. I'd explain it all to you, but I know you don't care. Which is nice, because I don't, either. We're left with a cavalcade of options, prices and variables such that I'm surprised Adobe doesn't sell a separate app to tell you which one to buy. In my case, I purchased an academic version of Master Suite CS4 a few years ago since I needed programs that didn't come bundled in a sub-suite. Which, I'm sure, is another part of the Grand Schematica of Maximum Purchasification. I have not upgraded since then, because I don't really need new features (as much as I dig the content-aware stuff in newer Photoshop releases), I couldn't afford it anyway, and you can't upgrade an academic version. My company is currently on CS5.5, so I can use newish tools if the need arises.

So, Adobe's cycle of upgrades and corresponding upgrade fees has gone on for about 20 years. The problem, for Adobe, is that releasing a new version of CS doesn't guarantee the installed base will automatically whip out a collective purchase order and pony up for the new auto-liposuction tool. Where's the steady cash flow in that? And how can Adobe get the nabobs at Boondocks Advertising & Stick Whittlin' to finally dump Illustrator 88 and join the glorious future in the present?

The obvious, to Adobe, solution: mimic everyone's favorite industry: wireless telecoms! Now let's pause a moment to admire the double colon action of the preceding sentence. And scene.

Yes, Adobe announced earlier this week that it will no longer be releasing versions of Creative Suite in order to focus on its Creative Cloud applications. In a probably-not-entirely-accurate nutshell, Creative Cloud is a subscription plan in which you, Userboy, pay a monthly fee to access Adobe applications. You don't, however, run applications from the cloud—you still install them on your hard drive. Which is smart. The cloud part, as far as I can suss out, is the 20 gigs of online storage you get, along with the ability to collaborate with team members or any Anonymous members who hack your idiot roommate's account.

The shift from CS to CC theoretically allows Adobe to push out upgrades and bug fixes faster. Which is true if you're still installing Photoshop from 24 .sea files on DSHD floppies. What it most certainly allows is for Adobe to enjoy a steadier stream of income. Even though you can pay for CC a month at a time, the more likely scenario will be a set-it-and-forget-it mentality. Like your Hulu Plus account and coke habit. But more like your coke habit because it'll bleed you drier faster. Which is the main complaint I've been seeing online. Depending on which plan you opt for and which previous version of CS you own, you could spend anywhere from $240 to $840 a year using CC apps. For many, that will be a higher average annual cost than biennial upgrades. And, of course, you never own the software (and please don't toss out EULA garbage about how all software is really just a usage license). So once you stop paying, the software stops working, dubious workarounds notwithstanding.

As someone who helps run a business, I understand the desire for more consistent cash flow. Yet I fail to see how this move is any kind of win for the majority of CS users. While some rather nice alternatives for certain Adobe products (especially for Photoshop) exist, I'm not sure the pain of this switch will cause even a significant minority to leave the fold or, at the end of the day, go off the reservation, but I'm just a focus group of one. So there it is: Adobe's betting that they're just not going to anger people enough to bother switching and ditching. Quite a way to build brand loyalty.

Right, Quark?



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