Dean M. Chriss

The Adobe Creative Cloud Conundrum
A subscription conniption
September 17, 2011

Storm on the Mountain
Storm on the Mountain
Adobe sells a host of software that is used by creative professionals including musicians, graphic designers, filmmakers, and others, including photographers. Over the years Adobe has eliminated any serious competition through various means, including buy-outs and hostile takeovers. The result is that Adobe has had what is essentially a monopoly in this market since 2005. Adobe's decision earlier this year to offer most of their software titles on a subscription only basis has caused an incredible stir in the photographic community. This little essay is my take on the situation.

Until now Adobe has sold what is known as perpetually licensed software. When you buy any perpetually licensed software what you actually purchase is the right to use a particular version of the software forever. In practice you can use it as long as you can maintain a computer and operating system with which the software is compatible. That period of time varies, but it’s typically a number of years. For instance, Microsoft Office 2003 works fine on Windows 8, which was released in late 2012. Similarly, Adobe Photoshop version 7 was released in March 2002 and it will also run on Windows 8, more than 10 years later.

A perpetually licensed version of Adobe Photoshop lets you create, print, open, and re-edit image files for as long as you can keep the software operational. If a newer version comes along and you don’t upgrade you lose none of the abilities provided by the software. The reason to upgrade is the “carrot” of gaining new and improved program features.

By contrast Adobe’s subscription software stops working as soon as you stop paying. If you want to open, re-edit, or print the files you created with the expired subscription software you must either subscribe again or find, buy, and learn other software that is compatible with the files you have. If you want to re-edit layered PSD files that task can range between difficult and impossible. Even if you can open the files and access the layers you may not be able to produce the same kind of edits. In addition to dangling the previously mentioned carrot, Adobe will now whack you with that big stick to keep you paying regardless of whether you like their carrots. This stick also gives Adobe tremendous leverage to raise future prices. If you have 100,000 image files how much would you pay to avoid the stick? I bet Adobe already has a number in mind.

After many years of using only carrots to entice customers, Adobe’s adoption of the stick to keep them paying is reason for concern. That's especially true when no comparable alternatives exist, and that's the reason so much controversy exists surrounding Adobe's move. Regardless of what this says about Adobe’s future business philosophy and their regard for customers, consumers have only a few options available:

1. Move to some other software. It's possible to do this with good results, but it will take several programs from different vendors to replace all the functionality of Adobe Photoshop. Doing this sooner rather than later, while the perpetually licensed version you have is working fine, makes some sense. There is a discussion of current Photoshop alternatives at The Luminous Landscape.

2. Wait. If you have a recent perpetually licensed version of Adobe software it will probably work on the operating system of the day for a number of years, though there are no guarantees. Programs like Photoshop are very mature and changes one can't live without are unlikely. If you're happy with what you have you'll continue to be as happy for as long as you can run the program. The problem here is uncertainty. There is no way to know what incompatibilities will crop up with the next computer or operating system you buy, or the one after that. It's certain that the software you have now won't run forever, so looking for and accumulating options before there's a crisis is prudent.

3. Subscribe because the introductory price is great, and dream that Adobe won’t use the stick they have crafted to make you pay a whole lot more in the future.

4. Hold your nose and subscribe knowing Adobe will definitely use their stick to make you pay more than you would otherwise be willing to pay.

The “Photographer’s Bundle” Adobe has offered really is a good deal, for now. It even includes a CC version of Adobe Lightroom that, like everything in the Creative Cloud, stops working if you stop paying. Just don't forget that Lightroom catalogs are not backward compatible. If you ever end your Adobe subscription you can’t go back to a previous version of Lightroom that is perpetually licensed. You could buy a new perpetually licensed copy if Adobe is still selling them at the time. In fairness Adobe says they "have no current plans" to discontinue perpetual licenses for Lightroom, but a few months ago they had no current plans to discontinue perpetual licenses for Photoshop, which is exactly what they did. In addition, at the time of this writing Adobe does not know if it will be possible in the future to switch from a subscription version to a perpetually licensed version of Lightroom without owning the perpetual licenses between your last one and and the current one. These are potentially some big thorns on Adobe's "keep on paying" stick.

I’ll leave you with some very prophetic song lyrics from 1969, by Joni Mitchell:

"Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all"

Don’t forget your umbrella.


P.S. After writing the above I realized the story of how we got here is interesting in itself. Adobe has historically offered a lower cost upgrade path to its current perpetually licensed software versions to anyone who owned any of the previous three versions. Then Adobe announced that they were going to offer perpetually licensed and subscription versions of their software, but instead of being able to upgrade a perpetual license from three versions back you could only upgrade from the previous version. That caused many to upgrade to the perpetually licensed CS6 just to stay on the reduced cost upgrade path to the perpetually licensed CS7 and beyond. Then, only after everyone who was going to upgrade had time to do so, Adobe said there would be no CS upgrade path after all, and the only choice for customers was a subscription to the pay forever Creative Cloud. Many felt they were fooled into buying a $200 upgrade to nowhere, but Adobe said they, at the last minute, couldn't manage keeping two different licensing systems. All of those upgrades that wouldn't otherwise have happened were certainly a "happy accident" for Adobe. It's interesting that Adobe can somehow manage, at least for now, to maintain the same two licensing systems for Lightroom. Hmmm.