Cloudy With a Chance of Risks: Adobe Takes a Plunge

Image Source

Image courtesy of Flickr user Marion Doss.

On May 6th, Adobe announced at a major trade conference that it would no longer continue to develop the Adobe Creative Suite of software (Photoshop, Illustrator, Premier, Dreamweaver, InDesign, etc.). Adobe’s future versions of these applications will be developed and offered ONLY through a membership (subscription) basis under the Adobe’s Creative Cloud (CC), although end-users can for an undefined amount of time continue to purchase “traditional” copies of its CS6 products. While this change in policy was not completely unexpected, the suddenness and finality of the implementation plan, as well as the rapid and overwhelmingly negative reception (often caustic) by end-users seems to have caught many by surprise.

By the way, in case you are wondering, the “Cloud” portion of the name is a bit of misnomer, and as far as I can tell it really refers to the fact the your membership status is checked via the Internet, and the fact the membership also includes a fairly generous amount of cloud storage, but one that is of questionable use for heavy users who typically deal with massive media files. The actual CC applications “live” on your personal computer and do not generally need Internet access to function … as long as you are in touch with “mother ship” Adobe at least every 30 days.


Having worked fairly extensively with licensing issues at the College for the past ten or so years, I try to keep up-to-date with the seemingly ever changing software industry licensing trends of some of our major software providers. During my time at William & Mary we have successfully been able to negotiate, usually with mutually beneficial results, campus licenses with companies such as Microsoft, ESRI (ArcGis), Matlab, Mathematica, and SPSS. One of the only major players that we, along with nearly every other institution in higher ed, were never able to come to any campus-wide agreements with was Adobe.

While most of their peers, including all of the ones mentioned above, over the years have shifted to campus-wide licenses with annual renewal fees, Adobe never offered such options, or at least at prices that W&M could even come close to being able to afford. Therefore, it has been very interesting to see how in the past year Adobe had begun to offer subscription-based software to individual users under the CC option, in addition to continuing sales of the traditional permanent licensed copies of the same software.

If you are not familiar with the concept of software subscription, it simply means that you never “own” the software you are using, but rather can only use it for the period of time for which you have paid to use it – i.e. it’s like cable TV rather than your favorite pair of shoes. Historically, you purchased a copy of a software title, and could continue to use it for as long as you wanted to, or more likely as long as you could keep a computer/OS that was compatible with the software in question. Those software titles, from Adobe at least, tended to have a very high initial cost, a fairly limited number of updates (typically every couple of years or so), and possibly a less expensive upgrade path to newer versions. In Adobe’s new model, you pay membership fees to be able to use the software. Much like with cell phone service plans, you can purchase month-to-month service (relatively “crazy” expensive), or if you are willing to commit to a yearlong plan, at a significantly lower cost. Adobe’s implementation of the subscription model is novel in that it’s being “offered” directly to end-users rather than just institutions.

Potential Pros For Creative Cloud

Faster development cycles and always up-to-date versions – As long as you have a fast connection to the Internet and an active membership, your license allows for unlimited no (additional) cost upgrades to whatever improvements Adobe can make to the software you are using. Under this model the traditional concept of “version” has little meaning, rather as long was you are subscribed you have the “latest and greatest.”

Lower Costs – Things get complicated here, but generally if you are the type of user that buys each new software version as it comes out, your costs could drop by using the CC option. This should be the case for the first year (even with our educational pricing), IF you commit to a full year membership, AND you signup before June 25th to get the early-adopter promotional pricing. The new model always provides lower startup cost to get up and running with these applications. Also if you are in a situation where you need very time-limited access to a specific Adobe application (likely?), a single month membership could potentially save you significant amounts of money relative to having to purchase the traditional software (not so if your project extends much longer than a month).

Predictable Budget – Fees are charged monthly even on annual memberships and this may make your budgeting a bit easier.

Potential Cons for Creative Cloud

Higher Costs – By my calculations, and no matter how you slice it, if you are like most W&M users and do not upgrade with every new version release but rather you “milk” your purchased software copy for three or even more years, then you will be paying more for Creative Cloud than you were in the past (over that period of time). In some cases significantly so, and this assumes no large price increase year to year. I’ll try and remain neutral on that matter and let you read Adobe’s own words (and the only ones that I could find) on this subject:

When you purchase directly from Adobe, the cost of an annual membership will not go up during the first 12 months of your membership. It is possible that the cost of the month-to-month membership will increase, but if it does, you will be notified and given the opportunity to cancel.

By the way, yes, there are early cancellation fees if you choose to walk away from the annual membership, and, no, I could find no information on what these fees actually are.

Change – It looks to me as if there might be no way to “freeze” your application in the long term. This may mean that you are always on the uphill side of the learning curve for a quickly changing application. This may make “mastery” and or even efficiency hard to achieve (cost is not the only reason we like to hold on to apps for so long).

No Access To Your Work – As an avid photographer/videographer this one is the killer for me. If your membership lapses, for whatever reason, you may well no longer have access to your own documents in a useful form. Sure, you will still have access to your actual documents (for a while, even the ones stored on Adobe’s cloud), but in many cases without an application to open them with, they are useless. Obviously, plenty of other non-Adobe applications would allow you to continue working with such things as html, jpg, or vector files. But what do you do with an Adobe Premier video project or a complex, layer Photoshop file when your software goes “dead”?

Plan of Action

Several of my friends have been using CC for a few months now — a few are very happy, but for others Adobe’s cloud has started to look pretty dark and ominous. For some, the ongoing costs are more than they want to deal with in a soft economy. Others are getting a sinking feeling about the new CC system due to Adobe’s general vagueness about the future — such as having no stated commitment to cap annual cost increases below a certain percent, no formal statement regarding backward and cross compatibility of file types used by CC, and having no clear “exit” strategy because of the lack of real and current competition for most of Adobe’s software titles.

The end-user backlash against Adobe’s CC plans has been both swift and in many cases vehement enough (almost every photography forum is overflowing with discussions on the topic) that Adobe already seems a bit on the defensive about its plans. Who knows … maybe they’ll decide to backtrack on CC-only development, if they fear that this will create a significant opportunity for the (currently nearly non-existent) competition, and/or a loss of revenue due to lack of adopters of their new offering.

As for my plans — I’m currently using Adobe CS4 (two versions back) at home and CS5 at work, and I’m in no hurry to upgrade either via CC (early adopter discount or not). If pressed, a good-old fashioned, perpetual license CS6 box-set looks awfully attractive option to get me by the next year or so, especially when an educational discount version is applicable/available. From there, I think taking a “wait and see” attitude will go a long ways towards making the right decision for the long term.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.