The editor of Digital Arts discusses why Adobe's move to a subscription service has provoked such strong reactions, what the underlying reasons for the move are – and how to decide if you should move to Creative Cloud.

Adobe’s announcement last week that it’s set to stop selling its software in favour of renting it out inevitably riled up a large section of its users.  A petition on Change.org demanding the company return to offering Creative Suite alongside Creative Cloud currently has almost 13,000 signatures – while even some users who’ve been won over have found moving to the Cloud difficult.

The two main charges laid at Adobe over the move are that it’s denying creatives a choice they had previously – which is true – and that they’re a bunch of money-grabbing bastards who are trying to screw money out of their customers by forcing them to pay and pay and pay. And pay some more. It’s easy to write off these latter accusations as hyperbole and trolling, especially as you can currently pick up CC for as little as £16 plus VAT per month – but why do people feel this way?

Underlying these accusations are three factors, two based on cost and one that's more psychological in nature. The first is that, despite a relatively low monthly price, owners who don't upgrade regularly will pay more in the long run. One of our American colleagues has done the maths on this (math, surely. Ed) and found this is true for Design Standard owners who upgrade less than every 26 months. However, more regular upgraders – especially owners of the pricier suites – may end up saving money.

The second is the legitimate fear that once Adobe has moved enough of its users over to Creative Cloud, it will jack the monthly prices up and you’ll have no choice but to pay the extra. And without direct competitors to its suite of products, it’s not going to be like switching your energy or broadband supplier if you don’t like what you’re paying.

Even though Creative Cloud has been out for a year now, it’s easy to see the current standard price of £39 per month (or £55 per person for studios) as a lower-than-it-otherwise-would-be launch price that will increase once enough of Adobe’s customers have moved over. While most Digital Arts readers will get it for less than that per month – as you'll get money off for the first year if you’re a current Creative Suite owner – most of you will be familiar enough with the psychology of pricing to know that the ‘standard’ price of a new subscription service is about winning people over by suggesting they’ll never pay more than this. But it inevitably rises. When and by how much is impossible to predict, which means making an informed decision about whether to sign up tricky.

The third factor is simple. Many people prefer the security of owning something to that of renting it – especially in difficult economic times. Yes, technically, you’re buying a licence to use Creative Suite rather than the software itself, but there’s little difference in practice, and there's the feeling that whatever happens, the tools of your trade are yours and no one can take them away from you. Even if you’re running a medium-sized or even a large graphic design studio right now, if it all falls apart, you can take your Mac and InDesign into your back bedroom at home and start over again.

The rental model

So why has Adobe taken the risky step of ditching a tried-and-tested sales policy in favour of a rental system that has the potential to alienate its customers and send them off on the direction of tools such as QuarkXPress, Sketch or Media Composer?

The first possibility is that Adobe sees its position as unassailable and its portfolio of tools as impossible not to have. Certainly, Photoshop is a key component of many creative workflows, whether it’s used all day, every day or just to create or quickly manipulate elements for use in edits, models or designs. Ditto Illustrator. Most video editors and CG animators we know – whatever key tool they’re using – rely on After Effects. If you have to have these tools, at some point you’ll need to sign up to Creative Cloud, even if you never touch three-quarters of the tools on offer.

The second – and most likely – is that the era of the big upgrade is over. The Creative Suite/Cloud’s name-brand tools are mature products that have fewer and fewer must-have new features with every release. Yes there are some that make you go ‘wow’, but often that’s more in appreciation of their technical wonder than being something you’d use every day. It’s often the seemingly smaller features that make the most difference on a daily basis – such as InDesign’s donut – and it’s tricky to get people to upgrade just for these. Occasionally though, you do get a tool that’s both a wow-inducer and makes your life easier – Photoshop’s Quick Selection tool, for example – but is that enough to make you fork out for an upgrade?

The growing popularity of single-purpose, stripped back tools like Sketch, shows that rather than looking for an application that does everything, many users prefer something more tailored to their needs. It’s easier to develop these when you know you’ve got a guaranteed audience for them – which Creative Cloud delivers. Adobe has already made its first steps towards this with the Edge line of tools for web design.

Also, in areas such as web and mobile design, big upgrades are often less important than iterative development to support the regular growth of new coding approaches and standards. Not being tied to a yearly upgrade cycle should help with this.

If this all seems largely web focused, it is – this area currently has the fastest development of new mediums that new creative tools are needed for. It’s also an area that Adobe doesn’t have a ‘must-have’ application in like it does with Illustrator and Photoshop for print design, and After Effects for video/motion work. Hopefully though, we’ll see new tools flourish in other areas, too.

I’m not convinced going Cloud-only is Adobe’s ‘New Coke’ moment, which a lot of strong opinions across the web have suggested, and that the company will return to offering full products in the face of negative reaction from the press, customers and/or people with loud opinions on Twitter. It depends on how convincingly it sells Cloud to its customers. Sell enough and it’s the right decision for a company looking at less revenue from a traditional upgrade path and wanting to be more flexible in what it offers in its software. Sell too few and we'll see some ‘after listening to feedback from our customers’ grovelling and a return to (virtual) boxed products.

Should you go Cloud?

So with this in mind, should you take advantage of the low-cost offers and sign up to Cloud? The answer is, as you’d expect, more complex than a simple, yes or no. Look at what you’ll gain – and what you’ll lose. If you’re a traditional graphic designer or small studio with CS4, 5 or 6, and have no plans to push into video or interactive design, then there are few reasons to sign up in the short term. The same is true for many independent video and animations professionals – especially if Adobe’s tools are supplemental to your main creative tool. And by waiting, you'll get some idea of if/how the pricing will change in the future.

Larger – or just growing – organisations who need to add more seats are just going to have to bite the bullet and sign up – but then if your company is of a big enough size to have bean counters, they’ll probably appreciate the set monthly cost (unless it rises rapidly). And at that point, you’ll see all the advantages of Creative Cloud – such as the wealth of products that allow you to develop your skills towards new disciplines.

Interactive designers of all ilks are both the hardest and easiest sell for Adobe. They’re the ones who need the new tools that Adobe is developing, and the most used to renting the wide range of development services such as Notable and Gridset – but they’re also the ones who might find it more economical to drop the equivalent of a month’s Creative Cloud each on Sketch, Pixelmator and their kind, then not have to pay again till it’s upgrade time again.