After we reported on Adobe’s decision to abandon boxed software in lieu of subscriptions (see “Adobe Flies from Creative Suite into the Creative Cloud,” 8 May 2013), many of you made your opinions heard loud and clear, and you’re not happy about the move. Many TidBITS readers made great points that we wanted to share, along with suggestions for how Adobe could soothe the savage user base.
We want to clear up two issues first, though. Adobe’s Creative Suite 6 FAQ explicitly says that, although they’re phasing out boxed copies of Creative Suite 6, the product itself will remain available for purchase and upgrade via electronic software distribution indefinitely, with bug fixes and security updates as necessary (thanks to reader Charles Reeves Jr. for tracking down this hard-to-find link). So, for the moment, nothing is truly different, though that may cease to be the case when Adobe next releases major new versions of core apps. Also, we previously said that month-to-month subscriptions to a single app required contacting Adobe; that isn’t true, though you have to go deeper into the purchase process before the option becomes available.
Comparing Apples to Upgrades -- While Creative Cloud has cost advantages compared to buying a fresh full retail copy of Creative Suite 6, it’s not such a great deal for those upgrading from nearly any previous version of the suite. Current license holders of CS3 through CS5.5 can subscribe to Creative Cloud Complete for $29.99 per month, for a first-year cost of $360; owners of CS6 will pay only $240 for that first year.
Of course, these prices apply only during the first year, and the monthly cost rises to $49.99 per month after that, which adds up to $600 for subsequent years. Meanwhile, if you own the CS5.5 Master Collection, the upgrade to CS6 costs only $525, and could likely last you longer than a single year.
Adobe could provide more to loyal customers than just a discount for a single year. In the past, Adobe rewarded customer loyalty with “cheap” upgrades. You’d spend a small fortune on the initial purchase, but the subsequent upgrades would be only a fraction of that price. Now, it works in reverse: thanks to that first-year discount, Creative Cloud is “cheap” upfront, but will grow in cost over time. Adobe could quiet many complaints by switching back to a structure that rewards users for being loyal, such as better discounts for longer subscription agreements. Adobe would argue that Creative Cloud subscribers get free updates and new apps, but if neither of those are of value to you, it’s hard to feel that you’re being appreciated as a customer.
Paying for What You Don’t Want -- Loyalty discounts wouldn’t solve one of the main issues with Creative Cloud pricing: the $19.99 per month (for a year commitment) pricing means that the only rational choices are one or two apps (in essence, $20 or $40 per month), or all apps ($50 per month); once you’re paying for three individual apps, the $60 monthly cost would be more than the full bundle cost.
While some users will be happy to gain access to additional programs, many others need just a few of Adobe’s apps. With permanent-license releases and boxed sets, designers could purchase Design Standard for $1,200, which included just the basics, like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and Acrobat Pro. Creative Cloud doesn’t offer this sort of focused package. Design Standard customers are being pushed over to Creative Cloud Complete, which is roughly similar for two years at $1,200 for most users. However, many will be irked at paying for software they will never use.
We would like to see Adobe allow users to build their own packages for a price less than the full bundle, though that would require changes to the per-app pricing structure. Nonetheless, doing so would provide a significantly better deal that would be hard to pass up for those whose needs are specific to just a few programs.
Details Cloudy for Nonprofits -- Nonprofits have long received generous discounts from Adobe. David Loehr, co-founder of the Riverrun Theatre Co. in Madison, Indiana, told us via App.net that he has previously been able to purchase Creative Suite packages for as little as $160 through TechSoup. Adobe doesn’t advertise nonprofit pricing for Creative Cloud, but we were able to find it through third-party reseller Genesis, which offers one year of Creative Cloud for Teams for $480. That’s a good deal compared to the full retail price of $840 per user, per year, but still significantly more than the previous permanent license cost — on an ongoing basis — for budget-strapped nonprofits. Again, Adobe would argue that Creative Cloud has a higher value than Creative Suite, but that’s true only if the extra apps and services are worthwhile to the customer in question.
But No Clearer for Businesses -- Nonprofits aren’t alone in feeling the pinch. A number of businesses have told us that Creative Cloud will drastically increase their software costs. Over on the TidBITS Talk mailing list, Paul Chernoff, director of Information Technology for the Washingtonian Magazine, said that the magazine’s payments to Adobe could rise from $4,700 per year for annual maintenance (for 15 CS6 licenses and 50 InCopy licenses) to over $24,000 a year for Creative Cloud for Teams. Chernoff has also heard from his supplier that Adobe is still working out what kind of discounts it will offer to larger buyers. This may be indicative of some lack of communication between Adobe and its resellers, who are likely feeling threatened by Creative Cloud, due to it enabling Adobe to cut out some middlemen.
Peering into the Crystal Ball of Pricing -- Right now, Creative Cloud is a good deal for some users and a bad deal for others. But what’s to stop Adobe from raising the price of Creative Cloud Complete from $50 per month to $60 or even $100? Obviously, at some point, the market wouldn’t bear such increases, but would doubling the monthly price cost Adobe more than half the subscriber base? If not, such an increase wouldn’t be irrational. In the Creative Cloud FAQ, Adobe pledges not to raise prices for the first 12 months of your subscription, but stops far short of saying that prices will never go up.
The only reliable solutions to this entirely legitimate concern are either a promise on Adobe’s part not to raise prices more than a certain percentage within a set amount of time, or a long-term contract that guarantees a maximum price. Unfortunately, neither seems likely, putting users at the mercy of Adobe’s business whims.
Stop the Adobe Express — I Want to Get Off! -- Regardless of costs, the other problem with Creative Cloud is that once you’ve hopped onto the Adobe train, there’s no getting off. Sure, you can cancel your subscription at any time, but as soon as you do, you lose the capability to edit — or even open — those of your files that exist in one of Adobe’s proprietary formats. You must keep paying if you want to open and work with your files, even if they are hosted on your local machine. If your files live in Adobe’s cloud, your cloud storage will drop to 2 GB, and you will not be able to sync files until you lower your usage to fit under that amount. If you fail to do so, Adobe may cut off some or all of your cloud storage file access after 90 days.
The current solution to this problem is the month-to-month subscription, of course, since you can always pay $30 for a single app or $75 for the complete package to regain access to your files for 30 days. That’s not unreasonable, though it becomes a much harder decision as soon as it’s not just a one-time need.
Adobe could address this in part with free viewer apps for all proprietary file formats, much as like Adobe Reader; similarly, Microsoft offers free viewers for Office file formats. These apps wouldn’t allow editing, but would at least let you peer inside your own files to determine the actual contents.
The best solution would be for Adobe to offer a “rent to own” approach with terms along the lines of familiar cell phone plans. For instance, after completing a two-year subscription, you would get to keep the software you currently had downloaded, only you would no longer receive updates. That way, users could agree to a subscription with the confidence that they wouldn’t be locked out of their files after they stop paying the piper. Others have suggested this as well, in comments on a blog post by Adobe Principal Product Manager John Nack entitled, “You should never lose access to your work, period.” If you have thoughts on this topic, be sure to add them to that post’s discussion.
CC Phone Home! -- One of the concerns with Creative Cloud is that it requires an Internet connection to validate your subscription every 30 days. Even if you’re offline, Adobe’s FAQ claims that you can keep using your Creative Cloud apps for up to 99 days (Adobe reportedly plans to increase this to 180 days). In our experience, this results in occasional nags that require clicking a Try Again button.
But as a few readers have noted, some high-security environments forbid Internet access after a machine has been configured. Adobe’s upcoming answer to this, at least for government agencies, is a “Creative Cloud Desktop Applications subscription” — the Creative Cloud FAQ states, “Available in July, government customers will be able to purchase the Creative Cloud Desktop Applications subscription via Adobe’s CLP-G licensing program. The Creative Cloud Desktop Applications subscription includes all of the available CC apps, plus Acrobat and Photoshop Lightroom. These applications can be deployed locally and do not require server-based license validation during the term.”
Or, in a scenario posted on Adobe’s forums, what happens if the Creative Cloud validation servers go down at an inopportune time before a tight deadline? The unfortunate answer is that Adobe explicitly says that Creative Cloud services are provided “as-is and with all faults,” meaning that it’s your problem if their servers somehow prevent you from using their software in a critical situation. To be fair, others in that thread note that even the current Creative Suite 6 apps can stop working due to failing licensing checks, so this isn’t an entirely new worry.
We’d like to see Adobe make this Creative Cloud Desktop Applications subscription available to others beyond government customers. It’s clear that at a technical level, there’s no problem with Creative Cloud apps not requiring an Internet connection at all.
Dark Cloud Rising -- There are undeniable benefits to Creative Cloud, including a more coherent update situation, a low upfront cost, and access to a large set of applications and services, with more promised in the future. It seems that Adobe is focusing Creative Cloud on creative professionals who have previously relied on numerous apps in the Creative Suite, always update, and are interested in new offerings from Adobe. Plus, the low upfront cost enables newcomers to get started with less of an initial investment — it’s easier to budget for $20 per month than drop $1,200 on CS6.
But many users see Adobe’s move as high-handed, expensive in the long run, and borderline monopolistic, given the scarcity of software that can compete with the heavy hitting apps in Creative Cloud. That’s particularly true for freelancers and small businesses, who often choose to stick with older versions of software for budgetary reasons. And many loyal users who were rewarded for their loyalty (and incentivized to stay in the fold) with inexpensive updates are troubled by the one-time lure of a first-year discount to Creative Cloud, after which the price goes up, with no guarantee that it won’t continue to rise in the future.
Subscriptions in general aren’t a bad thing — no one complains about paying a subscription for the use of an ongoing service like Netflix and Hulu, which are easy for those accustomed to paying the monthly cable bill. Although mobile phone service subscriptions are commonplace, there are pay-as-you-go alternatives for those who simply don’t need regular access.
But software subscriptions — software-as-a-service, or SaaS — are contracts of a different color, particularly when making the transition from the traditional permanent license model (which itself has long troubled many thinkers). If you sign up for a subscription to a Web app — say Trello Business Class — you understand from the start that if you stop paying, you won’t be able to log in any more. With software installed on your computer, though, the connection between the subscription and being able to use the software is much looser, especially when it affects existing tools, and doubly so when they’re tools you rely on to earn a living. Even Microsoft has said that, although its Office 365 service is popular, it doesn’t expect everyone to switch for a decade. We’d argue that it will be longer than that, since the very concept of standalone apps must become deprecated before everyone will be happier with subscription services.
Going subscription-only for a package like Creative Suite is a bold move. We doubt that Adobe would even attempt such a transition if not for the hegemony it has built in the creative world over the years. When it comes to professional design and publishing, it’s Adobe or nothing. But Creative Cloud is still a huge bet, one that could enable Adobe to rake in more money per user than ever before. Or perhaps users will revolt, paving the way for fresh competition in the creative space. More likely is the middle ground, where Adobe will continue to sell Creative Suite 6 packages quietly, while tweaking Creative Cloud’s terms to assuage critics.
If you’re among those critics, don’t just vent in our comments, let Adobe know how you feel! There’s a petition up at change.org with over 21,000 signatures as of this writing. Of course, it’s also worth expressing your opinions directly, with the Adobe Creative Cloud forum and the Creative Cloud Twitter account being good places to start.