Head in the Cloud

H

Every artist or specialist has certain tools they swear by. Photographers often have a certain brand of camera, and usually even a particular model that hits the sweet spot of their art. Craftsman know that quality tools make a difference, and treat their implements with as much care and affection. A musician would be loathe to be separated from that one guitar that has a certain intangible quality to it, a perfect balance of resonance and timbre.

Digital art has even spawned its own tools of the trade, and the internet has provided fertile ground for endless flame wars about the merits of one application over the other, or the obvious superiority of one provider over another.

Although I make my living in this trade, I confess a general agnosticism towards the applications I use. Perhaps my approach is too utilitarian, but I have mostly cared little about what I use as long I can use it to get the job done.

Case in point, as I have mentioned in other posts, for quite some time I primarily used Apple’s video production applications, Motion specifically, even though Adobe’s competing application (After Effects) is admittedly far superior. However, for quite some time I never actually felt the limitations, and thus I could give a fig what I was using since I could coax the same work out of it, even as peers thought me crazy.

But eventually limitations can catch up with you, and I finally made the move over the After Effects primarily over two years ago, and haven’t looked back. While I still find it a rather tedious piece of software, there is no denying the amount of power under the hood.

Of course, one of the draws of Adobe’s approach to design applications (at least since the debut of the Creative Suite) has the been the interconnectivity and plays-nice-with-others-ability of Adobe’s suite of tools. I use Photoshop and Illustrator as much as After Effects and Premiere, so having a (mostly) unified approach to the interface and usability has always been helpful.

In fact, given the success of Adobe’s Creative Suite over its 6.5ish iterations, I am clearly not the only one who thought so. Adobe essentially had the industry standard tolls in several fields (Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects), and for better or worse it was really difficult to exist as a producer in those fields without paying Adobe its pound of flesh, which most of us were willing to do.

For some time the process went something like this: every year or so Adobe would announce its new Creative Suite upgrade. Users would peruse the feature updates (as well as blogs, forums, etc) to find out if this update was really worth the upgrade price, which (as far as I recall) was usually about a third to half the price of buying it outright. Some of us (including me) upgraded religiously, regardless of the feature set, while quite a few others (I would suspect a plurality of users) would only upgrade  every second or third upgrade cycle.

What ended up happening was something like this: users such as myself (on the bleeding edge, lol) would have the most recent editions of the software (say CS6), but we would often have to hand off files to users still on CS4 or earlier. For some applications (like Photoshop or Illustrator) this wasn’t terribly difficult to get around, but for others (like After Effects) one could only save back to the previous version. (This was made trickier with Adobe’s in-between 5.5 release, which functioned as a full version.) It wasn’t all too surprising to even run into this scenario within the same department.

Let The Angst Commence!

At any rate, CS6 was one of Adobe’s most lauded CS releases, but along with it Adobe laid the seeds for a lot of angst: the introduction of the subscription model and Creative Cloud.

With CS6 one had the option of either purchasing the perpetual license (as with previous releases) or moving over to a monthly subscription. One of the most misunderstood aspects of this initially was that the software had to phone-home every so often to validate the software license, which led some to suspect that one had to always have an internet connection or the applications would not function (even though this is not the case).

But far more vitriol was expended when Adobe moved on to its post-CS6 release, which was simply called Creative Cloud (CC). The distinction here which caused on lack of consternation on the internets was that a perpetual license was no longer an option; everyone was now on the subscription model. Naturally, Adobe attempted to assuage the rage by touting CC’s new features, such as tighter online collaboration and storage for teams, integrated TypeKit, more frequent robust updates, and a host of other talking points.

The sticking point for many, however, continued to be the mandatory subscription model. In my readings, price is hardly an issue in this regard; rather, the crux of the matter is that the subscription model seems to imply that if one stops paying, one eventually loses access to one’s work. (In the perpetual licensing scheme, on the other hand, the software continues to function whether or not one ever upgrades or gives Adobe another dime.)

So, couldn’t Adobe have left well enough alone? And with such a dubious relationship to both the provider and one’s own access to one’s work, is the Creative Cloud simply a bad idea to be avoided? Is CS6 the last version of the Creative Suite one should ever use?

As someone with a vested interest in the tools I use (since they make me money), I’ve pondered this question quite a lot, even though I have been on CC since it first launched. And without presuming to universalize my opinion, I have my own reasons for having my head in the Cloud.

Solid Tools and Solid Updates

While I usually characterize my relationship with Adobe’s products as a love-hate relationship, it is hard to dispute that they are solid applications that get the job done, and usually fairly efficiently. It’s always hard to determine how much of an app’s performance is due to the coding of the application itself or the heftiness of one’s machine, but I have found the CC apps to be far more solid that previous iterations. It is very rare (for me, at least) to have an app crash in the middle of my work, and I tend to push them (especially After Effects) pretty hard. I get the same solidity whether on my five year old Mac Pro at home or my new late 2013 Mac Pro at work. There are performance hits certainly because of the difference in hardware, but even when my old dinosaur is crunching through the math it does so in a predictably stable manner.

While there is significant overlap between the CS6 apps and the most recent CC2014 apps, I have found that the updates and performance tweaks have made a world of difference in the performance and utility of many applications I use on a  daily basis. Evidently under the perpetual model release certain legal stricture kept Adobe from updating as often and as significantly as it perhaps could have, but apparently with the subscription model those legal concerns are obviated. I don’t pretend to know the legal intricacies, but Adobe’s updates to the apps in CC have been both frequent and substantial.

I find there are updated tools and features in many of the applications I use that have become a normal part of my workflow, and which were not available in CS6. Premiere, as an example, has gained significant updates to its integration with SpeedGrade that make color correction in Premiere a much more hassle free and intuitive process. Illustrator now has some shape-building functionality that takes the Pathfinder to a whole new level and creates a more clean and efficient workflow. These are just a few of the features I have come to use on a daily basis that make my workflow more productive, which I think is a fair tradeoff for sending Adobe my money on a monthly basis.

Everything Dies

As aforementioned, one of the most compelling arguments against CC is that the subscription model can (seen from a certain perspective) hold your work hostage. After all, if for whatever reason one decides to discontinue the subscription, the project file becomes essentially useless, since they cannot be opened.

Adobe has tried to mitigate this concern, in that one could purchase a one month (or more on a month-to-month basis) subscription which then allow access to the project files. However, the (admittedly valid) concern would remain that one would still always be held hostage to Adobe’s whims, without any perpetual license with which to fall back on.

I completely appreciate this perspective, and think it is a valid one. Initially I even shared many of the same concerns. However, after thinking though both the implications and comparing it to my usage, I have found that for me such concerns do not carry much weight.

After all, the promise of the perpetual license is that once it is purchased, the software can then be used in perpetuity, regardless of whether Adobe raises prices, goes out of business, etc. I have seen forum commenters ask if people want to be able to open up their projects when they retire, and how they cannot necessarily do that with the subscription model.

I find such concerns valid, but in my own situation the concerns have less purchase. Consider the following: a perpetual license may allow you to open up a project file in perpetuity, but when talking about computers and digital media the the term “perpetuity” has a very limited meaning, perhaps that of only a few years.

If the past 20 years of computing is any indication, the way in which computers function will continue to advance. Operating systems shift and change, file formats rise in ascendency and then fizzle into obscurity, hardware advances and affects the way software is built.

In my opinion, the promise of the perpetual license is a very short-lived one since there is no guarantee that the application in which the work is contained will even function 5+ years from now. For example, I own a perpetual license of Final Cut Studio, which I upgraded 2 times over the course of my use of it. It worked well during the time I used it, and the last release was back in 2009. Now, only 5 years later, I cannot even open the project files because it is not compatible with my operating system. So even though I have a perpetual license for its use, that license is essentially unusable, even after such a short time.

Now, there is a way around this, in that one can essentially lock a computer down, like freezing a bug in amber, never upgrading the operating system, never upgrading the hardware, etc. In such  scenario, yes, the perpetual license will probably squeeze a few more years of use out of the applications. But consider then that computers break down, components wear out and become obsolete. At some point the perpetual license will eventually run out.

This may sound cynical, but in my opinion it is merely a realistic assessment of the state of affairs in the realm of digital media. At some point, in fact, even a perfectly functioning amber-ized computer with outdated software will have diminishing returns, since the performance hits will eventually cut into one’s efficiency and productivity. It is the same empty promise as the upgradability of hardware. My home computer, as an example, is a 2008 Mac Pro, which was touted as super-upgradable. And to be sure, I have upgraded just about every component in it over the past 5 years. But I am now beginning to face serious limitations, not only because the CPU is old and the GPU caps out at a certain point, but also because the connections are going to be perpetually stuck at USB2. There is simply no way to upgrade to USB3 or Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2. At some point (in the next year, most likely) I will have to get a new computer to be able to do my work.

This is not to say that perpetual licenses are a bad thing; far from it. Rather, it is simply the nature of technological advancement that today’s technology become’s tomorrow afterthought, which means perpetual licenses have a short shelf life indeed.

Giving Adobe Money 

In a related manner, the subscription based model somewhat modifies the relationship between provider and customer, in that one is for all intents and purposes locked into that relationship. I confess some trepidation at such a prospect, but the previous considerations (and others) somewhat mitigate its force.

In many ways, software as a service is little different from a utility, although there are of course significant differences. However, when considered in this perspective, the relationship begins to make a little more sense.

After all, utilities (such as lights, water, etc.) are such that one never actually “owns them” (excepting of course situations like having a well on one’s property, using only generators, etc.). Rather, the customer exists in a quasi-subscription based relationship to the provider, in that utilities are purchased on a month-to-month basis, even within schemes such as averaging previous years’ consumption. Thus, while one could conceivably own the means for providing water and lights, for most customers such a scenario is hardly practical or affordable. Part of the cost is the convenience of not having to own the utility, having it repaired, etc.

I don’t mean to draw an exact compares between utilities and subscription based software, but there are some similarities in both the functionality and the relationship. For example, while it is usually feasible for most people who use this type of application to outright own it (in the perpetual licensing scheme), one might wonder whether or not it is necessary. As aforementioned, any particular piece of software has a limited shelf life; even when locked into a machine and an operating system there are diminishing returns to  owning it in such a manner.

A subscription based model, on the other hand, functions much like a utility in that one is paying for the convenience of using the applications, having them repaired (via patches, updates, etc.) having them function in a certain way within certain collaborative workflows, etc.

Speaking for myself, the subscription based model makes it far easier to cost out the overhead of my design business. While Adobe’s previous upgrade cycles usually came around the same time of year and often had similar pricing, one could never be sure when the upgrade would come or how much it would be, which makes allocating the resources for upgrading a trickier thing to plan and time for. However, having a fixed monthly fee is much easier to budget into the business’ cash flow, which allows for greater predictability in regards to expenses.

Additionally, while it has been (correctly) noted that the subscription based model ultimately leads to higher overall costs over the long term (given that a plurality of Adobe’s customers probably did not upgrade every cycle), for those who do the cost differential is marginal, if not less (for those upgrading the Master Suite). Often clients can dictate the versions of software one uses, and in my own work it is almost unavoidable that I have to use the most recent versions of Adobe’s products to be able to collaborate and work effectively with my clients. Naturally not everyone fits into this scenario, but for those who do being able to have the latest version without having to deal with unknown cash-flow issues is a fairly compelling feature.

Speedbumps

Lest I sound like I am composing a panegyric to the Creative Cloud, the switch has not been without its hiccups. For the first year of CC’s existence many of the touted features such as cloud storage and TypeKit integration were essentially vaporware. True, they showed up as tabs in the Creative Cloud app (which I feel is a fairly useless app…) but had no extant functionality. As far as I am aware it wasn’t until the 2014 release of the Creative Cloud apps that these features were finally turned on.

Of course, the 2104 apps release was problematic in its own right. During the initial run of CC all app updates seamlessly integrated into the already installed apps. Version numbers would advance (such as 12.0 to 12.1), but one would not have to reinstall the app or install a new version.

CC 2014 changed this. Granted, it was a fairly major release for most of the products, but suddenly one discovered that one was downloading entirely new versions of the same apps. For better of for worse, CC retained the older versions of the CC apps, merely appending new apps to one’s applications. The result was, in a sense, kind of amusing, punctuated by the fact that the CC 2014 app icons looked exactly like the previous CC apps.

My Desktop at work

The biggest difficulty with this was that the CC 2014 update functioned essentially like a new CS version release, with all the promises and pitfalls intact. Most tragic was that some CC 2014 apps were simply not compatible with the older CC apps, even though they were both branded as Creative Cloud.

The upshot was that I found with my own team at work that some of us would have CC 2014 apps, while others had CC apps, which led to some collaboration hiccups. While I’m not sure there was any way around this (given the significantly upgraded functionality in some apps), it was a bit of a disconnect since one of the features of CC for teams was the notion that everybody would have the same apps, the same functionality, always be up to date, etc. Unfortunately, CC 2014 seems to have broken that functionality, since even within my own team we were all on CC but unable to collaborate with some applications and files.

As aforementioned, I’m not sure if there is any way around this for Adobe, but the most unfortunate thing is that it makes the main commonality to be the subscription model, for better or for worse. This is at least the feeling that the CC 2014 update brought, since the seamless functionality was apparently mitigated by an upgrade cycle, much like previous versions of the Creative Suites.

In my opinion, Adobe needs to make this process either more straightforward or more transparent (or both), since things such as the unchanged app icons belies the difference inherent in the app functionality.

Moving Forward

As is hopefully clear from the preceding, I am a somewhat reluctant fan of Creative Cloud, and while I think it definitely has its issues, on the whole I feel it is a positive step forward for Adobe. Nevertheless, I think there are some things that could be done to improve the CC experience and for Adobe to improve its relationship with the community, which has been harmed in many ways by its choice of business model.

Firstly, I think that some kind of perpetual license hybrid model could be developed. I don’t have any silver bullet idea, but perhaps even a small gesture of goodwill could alleviate much of the angst of the subscription model. I doubt I am the first to suggest this, but Adobe could perhaps follow the path it did when transitioning from CS6 to CC in allowing the option of obtaining a perpetual license for versions, since Adobe seems to still be utilizing the versioning system for its releases. Since Adobe clearly wants to go in the direction of subscriptions, it could attach a premium to the perpetual license, to at least allow those who wish to have one (and are willing to pay for it) to obtain one. This could apply to the entire suite of tools, or on an app by app basis. Similarly, after a certain time in CC (say, three years) an option could be opened to obtain the license for the current release, either gratis or for a additional premium.

The trick, of course, is to not necessarily price the perpetual license out of reach, nor to price it in such a way that the customer feels taken advantage of. I don’t have any clue how such a scenario could be made to work or to be made equitable, but I think some option towards perpetual licenses would help Adobe regain some of its lost goodwill.

Secondly, I think that Adobe needs to work more diligently on unifying the interface and functionality of all apps across the board. This has always been the promise of app integration ever since the first Creative Suite, but it has never actually come to fruition. Some apps feel very modern, while others (like After Effects) feel as clunky and outdated as they always have. Part of creating a seamless experience in CC is for the customer to be instantly familiar with the controls and functionality of any app, regardless of their prior familiarity with it. Adobe has admittedly made great strides in this respect over the years, but we’re not quite there.

As an example, in many CC 2014 apps (e.g., Premiere, AE, Illustrator, SpeedGrade) upon opening one is greeted with an option screen to sync settings, open previous files, create a new document, etc. For these apps this experience functions in remarkably similar ways. However, some apps such as Photoshop do not have this at all, which makes the app feel disconnected from the rest. Granted, this is only a small and rather insignificant example, but it is a hundred of these small interface and functionality quirks that still make the apps feel silo-ed off from each other.

Thirdly, some apps desperately need to be brought into the modern world. After Effects, although an amazing application and extremely powerful, still feels as if it is a late 90’s app. The interface feels very similar to other modern Adobe apps, but the functionality is beginning to show its age (actually, it has been for some time), as it just feels somewhat clunky and unruly. It certainly does not have the snappy experience that Adobe’s other apps have. It also continues to utilize functionality and nomenclature that made sense 15 years ago but now lacks utility and relevance. This otherwise great program could certainly benefit from a facelift, as well as some much needed performance and organizational enhancements.

Lastly, the Creative Cloud app needs an overhaul. It’s functionality is very erratic, and it doesn’t really seem to integrate into either the applications or the user account in a very transparent manner. For example, app updates- as far as I can tell- cannot be manually forced; one has to wait until the app automatically detects updates. Most of the time this won’t even be noticed, but there are times it would be helpful to be able to force it to search for updates, which seems a rather ubiquitous feature of self-updating apps.

Additionally, trying to download or re-download apps is not a very transparent experience. For example, Encore CS6 was discontinued during the CC release, but one could still download it from the CC website. The difficulty is that when one clicks on ‘Download,’ it prompts the CC app to open, which may or may not see the app in question, thus making it more difficult to download a previous version of the app. This would not be as problematic if Adobe did not offer previous versions for download as a part of the subscription; but this kind of sometimes broken functionality makes the sole package a harder sell, especially when Adobe continually pushes out updates that may render project files unreadable by previous versions (svn CC versions!).

Conclusion

I use Creative Cloud on a daily basis, and while I have certain reservations about it and wishes for some enhancements in functionality, overall I have found it a compelling release that has improved my workflow and increased my efficiency. And since that usually translates into more money, it’s hard to argue with what works. For me the concerns about future access to my work are mitigated by the functionality and efficiency gains (both in terms of applications and business considerations), and I thus reservedly recommend it to anyone for whom a subscription model is not a deal-breaker.

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By deviantmonk

Jason Watson

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