Adobe plays Monopoly with your photos (required reading for all Photoshop users, present and future)

Poppy Hillside, California Gold Country

Poppy Hillside, California Gold Country
Canon EOS-1D Mark II
1/250 second
F/5.6
ISO 320
70 mm

Storm brewing

Adobe recently announced the new Adobe Creative Cloud paradigm for its Creative Suite software (Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, et al). While Photoshop is an essential part of my workflow, I’m not a power user and earn no income from Photoshop training, so I hadn’t really given this change a lot of thought. My plan has always been to simply stick with my current Photoshop CS6, which I’m quite happy with, and to stay out of the fray. That was before Michael Frye’s recent blog post, and the comments it generated, started me thinking a little deeper about the ramifications of Adobe’s change.

Once upon a time

Under the pricing model replaced Adobe replaced with ACC, Photoshop (I’m going to limit my comments to Photoshop, which is all that matters to me and most of my readers) has been updated every year or two (closer to two years than one); current users, after an initial $600+ purchase landed them on the Photoshop carousel, could upgrade to the latest version for an upgrade fee of $200 or so. While the initial price and the upgrade fee were far more than I typically pay for software and upgrades, not only do I need Photoshop, it’s amazing software that I’ve always felt was worth the price.

Send in the cloud

Enter Adobe Creative Cloud. Starting immediately, all subsequent Photoshop versions will be available on a subscription-only basis: $20/month for Photoshop only (because I’m looking more at ACC’s long-term ramifications, I’m ignoring the introductory, twelve-month, Photoshop for $10/month lure Adobe is offering); $50/month for the entire suite (plus a few other subscription options depending on use and current license status). For your ACC subscription you get lots of features of dubious value, free cloud storage (limited value for most), and, most importantly, instant access to new Photoshop features.

New users (surely there are still a few photographers out there not using Photoshop yet), rather than having to shell out the initial $600 (or whatever—there are lots of special offers that can reduce the Photoshop entry price somewhat), simply have to start a subscription: Score one for new users. Existing Photoshop users who paid their $600 initiation and have loyally contributed the $200 sub-annual upgrade dues, have gotten nothing but a shrug and an, “Oh well,” from Adobe. Score one for Adobe. While this doesn’t seem like a particularly great way to treat loyal customers, I haven’t been particularly critical of this aspect of the change because I always felt each version of Photoshop gave me my money’s worth.

What’s all the grumbling about?

ACC has inspired lots of complaints that would be easy to write it off as the standard grumbling that happens whenever an industry leader changes something (interface, security, pricing, etc.). And some Adobe Creative Suite multi-product users are singing the praises of Adobe’s move, pointing out that it will actually save them money in the long run. So what’s the problem?

Most of the praise and complaints about ACC are misguided and shortsighted. It’s true that ACC will cost most casual users more in the long run, with little added benefit (over continuing the current upgrade-fee paradigm). And even for many more serious users, the extra cost won’t add much benefit. For example, while I haven’t missed an upgrade in many years, I rarely upgrade immediately upon availability, and am even slower to incorporate the latest features. Generously assuming an upgrade outlay of $200 of every eighteen months under the current scheme (the historic average isn’t that frequent), at $20/month I’d be paying Adobe $360 every year and a half, $160 more than I currently pay. Since the new features are rarely an immediate game changer for me, and all the extra ACC “perks” are of zero interest, I see no way paying more money for ACC can be better than the current arrangement. Nevertheless, if Adobe had simply increased its upgrade fees, I’d have been less than thrilled but would have continued buying upgrades with little complaint.

On the other hand, those who use multiple ACC products and have a limited budget must be thrilled with the savings: the more ACC products you use, the more money you’ll save. And Photographers who must have the latest feature the instant it’s available will probably be very happy with the opportunity to fulfill their first-kid-on-the-block urges because they won’t need to wait a year or two for the next new Photoshop version.

It’s not just a game

Monopoly: exclusive control of a commodity or service in a particular market, or a control that makes possible the manipulation of prices.

Adobe Photoshop has held a monopoly on serious photo processing for years (and years). After pretty much saturating the market for new Photoshop users, Photoshop’s potential for growth more or less flatlined, making upgrades Adobe’s revenue bread-and-butter. But, since users could decide whether or not to spring for the latest upgrade based on its benefits over the prior version, Adobe was actually competing with itself only—in other words, to entice users to shell out $200 for the new version, Adobe wasn’t battling outside competition, the only competition they had to outdo was themselves (their previous version).

I suspect Adobe became a little tired of this (after all, what good is a monopoly if you can’t kick back with your feet on your desk, flicking cigar ashes on the floor?). Enter the cloud. While Adobe wasn’t at risk of losing money under the old model, it just found an opportunity to make more money. That’s what capitalism is all about. The problem is, capitalism starts to fall apart when monopolistic power supresses competition. And with no competition, Adobe has much less incentive to please its users. Since Adobe had no other competition to eliminate, they changed the rules to remove themselves from the equation—bingo, instant monopoly. If you’re not convinced that’s what happened here, ask yourself whether Adobe would have attempted something like this if its customers had any other options. And why they haven’t allowed us to choose between the old model and the new model.

Under the old model, Adobe had to deliver something of value before we gave them our money—if we didn’t think the latest version was worth the upgrade fee, we could simply wait until the next one (or the one after that). Now, under ACC, Adobe asks us to pay today and trust them to continue providing value in the form of performance improvements, reasonable pricing, and (especially) new tools. And if at any point we decide they’re not giving us value, withholding our money not only stops future improvements from landing on our computer, it sends us all the way back to where we are today (CS6).

Compounding the problem is the likelihood that improvements will, sooner or later, render new Photoshop files incompatible with CS6. Perhaps future ACC features will be so significant that there’s no avoiding backward compatibility limitations as the versions diverge; but a cynic might argue that backward incompatibility is also a smart business strategy that would very effectively lock ACC users into perpetual rent payment. It would also insulate Adobe against a mass exodus should they, let’s say, decide to increase the rent. And when the day comes when you can’t take your ACC-processed images elsewhere, you’re at Adobe’s mercy.

From Adobe’s perspective, ACC is genius, its long term profit potential limited mostly by their ability to convince the world that it’s actually in Photoshop users’ best interest. But I’m afraid that, in addition to the simple cost hits cited earlier (again, not a huge deal as far as I’m concerned), ACC is an opportunity for Adobe to get fat and lazy. Even if that’s not in their plan, there’s nothing like competition to inspire innovation, service, and reasonable prices. And there’s nothing like a monopoly to suppress all those inconvenient revenue drains. So, even if you believe that Adobe is an inherently good corporation that bases all decisions not on what will maximize its revenue but rather on what will most benefit users, removing the need to compete (even if it was only with itself) eliminates the motivation that has spurred them to consistently amaze us with the great and unexpected.

Meet the new boss

Should you allow Adobe to become your landlord? That’s your call; the answer isn’t absolute and depends on your circumstances and priorities. But you should at least approach the decision with full understanding of the longterm ramifications. Moving out of your reliable, fully paid for image processing home and into a flashy new image processing rental means trusting that your Photoshop landlord will be a benevolent monopolist (not just today, but tomorrow and the next day too), that they’ll continue to be at least as innovative and timely with fixes and improvements as they’ve ever been, even if they don’t have to. Because once you’re in, you’re in.

Five years from now, if you realize that Adobe has had its development feet on the desk for a while, jacking the rent while the cigar ashes accumulate on the floor, you’ll have two options: continue paying rent hoping that they’ll eventually fix the plumbing and add that new pool and gym you’ve been waiting for; or, simply stop paying rent, get evicted, and move back into to that place where you used to live (that hasn’t been worked on in five years). Oh, and you won’t be able to take any of your new stuff with you either.

*   *   *   *

I chose the image at the top of this post because it has a cloud. (Genius!)

11 Comments on “Adobe plays Monopoly with your photos (required reading for all Photoshop users, present and future)

  1. Not disagreeing that Adobe has made mistakes. They have an offer for $9.99 per month on a one year contract for the first year ending very soon. In addition there is noise that they will continue this pricing and sweeten it, not ideal I will admit, but better than 20/month.

  2. I’m 100% with you and have no intention on renting my software or joining ACC – would be happy with a lease to buy option …

  3. My best suggestion would be to get involved with something like this: http://www.gimp.org/develop/
    There are multiple ways to contribute. GIMP has some shortcomings that keep it from being a drop-in Photoshop replacement, however, I can’t help but feel that if enough people were involved, it could provide the features that people really need. The best part – it’s free.

  4. It’s a hard sell, for sure.. but I think attributing it all to greed is overstating everything. Adobe knows that it will lose some business this way. They have done the calculations, I think they figure that what they need to keep is somewhere around half of their current client base to keep things going (don’t know the exact numbers). It’s a fact that some products which were less profitable have been moved to China for maintenance… few if any new features will be added to those products. I’m not sure that the ACC is for me, but then I remember how much I spend per year on camera equipment and the like… and also how much I used to spend on film and development (when I bought my first digital SLR, I calculated that film/development costs paid it off in 10 months. A lot of factors to weigh in to this decision.

    • Thanks for your comments, Andy. The point I’m trying to make is that it isn’t about the money as a lot of people complain, it’s about Adobe removing its primary reason to innovate, maintain, generally keep users happy. Before, Adobe had to keep innovating because there was no other way to compel users to upgrade; now, users will be paying Adobe before delivering improvements, and soon (with the inevitable arrival of backward incompatibility) we’ll not have a way out if Adobe doesn’t live up to expectations. Paying anyone anything based on no more than a “trust me” is not a good place for a customer to be.

  5. Pingback: First Look – Photoshop Creative Cloud | Nature's Best by Don Smith Photography

  6. If I can’t take what I put in when or if I decide to leave, It will NEVER happen!!

  7. A very cogent and thoughtful commentary. Adobe’s change sucks in so many ways it’s hard to list them all. I am fine staying with CS6 but what happens when new cameras come out and those of us not in the cloud won’t have access to the new profiles. As time goes by, we will be less and less capable vis a vis the outside world. I’m hoping that Adobe will revisit this issue and perhaps still have a boxed version of PS for photographers. Or at least $9.99 in perpetuity. I suppose I can live with that. But as one sage has said, “Hope is not a strategy”.

  8. Pingback: A look on the bright side | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  9. Pingback: First Look – Photoshop Creative Cloud | Nature's Best :: Don Smith Photography

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