A new creative standard: Adobe Creative Cloud

A big change is coming with Adobe this year: In 2012, Adobe will be launching the Adobe Creative Cloud. I think this will make a big difference for Adobe users. Here’s why.

I’ve been buying Adobe Creative Suites and products like Photoshop for at least ten years now. Every time a new version comes out, I evaluate the features and make the judgment call: is it worth several hundred dollars to be able to have access to these admittedly great new features?

While I grouse about Adobe at times, because of the many crashes, the truth is that a lot of their products save me a ton of time, and allow me to do my job much better.

With Photoshop, it is now much easier to make an accurate conversion of a color photo to grayscale. In Illustrator, it now takes mere seconds for me to convert a color illustration into a new two-color version. InDesign continues to get better and better, and simple features like allowing headings to stretch across multi-column text boxes make a big difference.

The dark side to Adobe Creative Suite upgrades has been incompatibility with previous version. I have Adobe CS4 at home, but I can’t open an Adobe CS5.5 InDesign document with CS4. This is a huge pain. If I want to be able to open files from newer versions, I need to pay several hundred dollars to upgrade.

In a way this is a similar challenge that we face in web development. The biggest challenge is that as HTML and CSS develops, how can we create great experiences in the new versions while still making them accessible to people using older browsers? Thankfully there are a lot of techniques, like progressive enhancement, that can allow us to layer on experiences, so that those using older browsers still get an ok experience, while newer browsers get a great experience.

Progressive enhancement is not something Adobe has done with its file formats: you must pay to be able to access new file formats. As colleagues upgrade, if you share files with them, at some point you will likely need to pay the several hundred dollars to upgrade.

The incentive for Adobe is to create exciting new features that will entice people to make the decision to upgrade. Also, the more frequent they have upgrades, in theory the higher their revenue. Thus the switch from a 18-month major upgrade product cycle to a 12-month minor update product cycle.

With Adobe Creative Cloud, that all changes. Instead, the Adobe Creative Suite essentially becomes Software as a Service, in that we will be paying a monthly fee in order to be able to use their programs. For $50 per month, you get access to the entire Master Suite; for $70 per month, you get that plus the ability to share files with a workgroup. It’s possible they may have a less expensive version with a smaller selection of products.

Now, if you tend not to upgrade every time a new version of the Adobe Creative Suite comes out, this could cost you a lot more money. If you upgrade every version, this may be cheaper.

But here’s the upside.

While Adobe may still be offering a flat-fee “boxed version” of Adobe CS6, for those who don’t want to pay a monthly rate, I bet they’re pretty excited to get everybody on Adobe Creative Suite, for more reason than just the benefit of a more stable constant stream of revenue.

If everybody were using the Adobe Creative Cloud, which they claim will provide updates more frequently, than there is no more worrying about having to pay a large chunk of money in order to be able to use the same version your colleagues are using. No fee to be able to use files from a different version.

Essentially, everybody is on the same version, as long as people acquiesce to the constant nagging of the Adobe Updater desperately jumping up and down in your Dock every day to get your attention.

Now, instead of Adobe focusing on creating blockbuster features that will sell newer versions, my hope is that Adobe will focus on things that really affect my work day, such as correcting bugs as soon as they find them. Now, there’s no reason to force people to upgrade in order to get a bug fix.

And hopefully they won’t grow complacent and will continue to launch great new features. The nice thing is that they can roll those out as they are ready, rather than waiting for a big release to announce.

With everybody switching to a monthly rate, there is of course the chance that Adobe stagnates and doesn’t feel the need to continue to improve their product, since they won’t need to convince people to pay money to upgrade. However, I hope that they choose to focus on making their creative applications a great experience for people, so that creative professionals tell others how wonderful it is to use the Adobe Creative Cloud, more people sign up, and Adobe continues to grow.

I do get concerned that since Adobe is a public company with shareholders expecting year-over-year growth, that there is the possibility that Adobe reaches a saturation point of creative professionals using the Adobe Creative Cloud, and that they might turn to shenanigans to show increasing profits. The alternative is that their profits increase by growing their product base in new developing countries and continuing to democratize design, so that more and more people use their products.

The bottom line is that it could be an exciting time, where everybody can essentially be on a new version of creative suite applications, all the time. This creates a new living standard for Adobe file formats, that allows for continuing innovation without having to worry about backwards compatibility.

It makes me a little jealous, actually. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could develop for the web in the same way? If everybody’s web browsers just automatically upgraded all the time? (I’m looking at you, IE!) And then we simply used new techniques, without worry they wouldn’t work in older versions?

On the other hand, that’s part of the genius of the web as well. We can still develop sites and web apps that can work to some extent for all versions of web browsers.

In any case, I’m excited about the possibilities that the Adobe Creative Cloud has to offer in keeping us all in sync for 2012.