Cause and (plug-in developer) effect of the Adobe Creative Cloud ecosystem

Adobe's Creative Cloud subscription model changed the game for how other plug-ins and apps interact with Adobe apps. Here's a look at how things got a little messy.

adobe creative cloud 2015

If there’s one constant in the universe, it’s that nothing stays the same. Everything changes at some point—call it progress, evolution, devolution or whatever you want. The problem is that change is scary, especially when it affects your livelihood.

For example, many would say that Adobe upset the software apple cart by bundling their apps into Creative Cloud and switching from perpetual licensing to a subscription-based model. Creative pros weren’t comfortable with the idea of renting software, regardless of any advantages. The controversy rages on, and Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription model continues to wreak havoc on third-party (non-Adobe) plug-ins that interact with Creative Cloud apps. Things have a gotten a bit messy.

The setup

Before Creative Cloud cropped up, Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator users were hyper aware of each major upgrade, because they had to fork over serious money to get it. Now upgrades arrive with no additional payment required beyond the ongoing (and easily forgettable) monthly Creative Cloud fee. Upgrading is as convenient as clicking an Update button—a process we’ve all been conditioned to perform for free incremental updates from software companies (Adobe included) for years.

Adobe’s intended effect with Creative Cloud was to make customers less sensitive to the actual cost of each major revision, since it’s amortized over many months of payments. Adobe’s unintended effect has been to anger and confuse some customers who now must pay to upgrade their third-party plug-ins so they work with the updated Adobe apps. Why? Because when customers become less involved in paying for major upgrades to Adobe’s apps, they become less understanding of the cost of keeping third-party plug-ins going.

The problem

Here’s a case in point: Most creative pros work with many fonts, from many sources. For sanity’s sake, this necessitates they use a font management utility such as Monotype’s FontExplorer X Pro, Extensis’ Suitcase Fusion or Insider Software’s FontAgent Pro. Font management is no small matter—it’s a complex (and convoluted) science because there are multiple versions of many fonts and most fonts have multiple font formats.

To resolve the confusion, pro-level font management apps use plug-ins to track specific font information inside pro-level design apps such as Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator and QuarkXPress. As Adobe and Quark release major upgrades (usually indicated by a new version number such as 8, 9 or 10, or a by a new year such as 2014 or 2015), their plug-in architecture changes enough that the font managers need a new plug-in for each new version of the app. Obviously, this costs those developers time and money that must be recovered.

Unfortunately, if a customer’s perception is that they receive Adobe upgrades “for free,” then they have a tough time understanding why they have to pay to upgrade a plug-in that worked perfectly fine with the previous version of the app. Using FontExplorer X Pro as an example, version 4 played nicely with the initial Creative Cloud apps up through Creative Cloud 2014. Monotype even released free updates to their FontExplorer plug-ins for the affected apps as Adobe updated them. But after many years of working for free, Monotype now requires customers to upgrade to FontExplorer 5 in order to get plug-ins for Creative Cloud 2015 apps and QuarkXPress 2015.

QuarkXPress customers aren’t complaining much at all because Quark still uses perpetual licensing—you pay to upgrade when you’re ready for a new version of QuarkXPress. It’s a conscious, in-your-face (or wallet) decision. Therefore, their customers aren’t shocked when they need to cough up a few bucks for plug-in upgrades. In contrast, many Adobe customers are confused and some are outraged.

What’s the solution?

It’s possible that Adobe is assuming plug-in developers will (eventually) join them and switch to a subscription-based model. Perhaps Adobe is “leading by example”—only time will tell. But for now, plug-in developers are faced with the difficult (and costly) decision to either change to a subscription-based fee structure or continue selling perpetual licenses, and hope their customers don’t get too upset when they’re forced to upgrade.

And if developers make the move to a subscription-based model, how much can they expect to charge per month? A product such as one of the aforementioned font managers costs less than $100 with an upgrade cost of $50 every two years or so. Simple arithmetic shows that if the developer gets $200 over six years for the initial purchase plus two upgrades, they get less than $3 per month, per user. The overhead involved in processing these payments would probably boost the price a little—which may be totally acceptable to customers. Or it may be the final straw that breaks the metaphorical camel’s back, both for the customer (who refuses to pay the rental fee) and for the developer (who may no longer receive enough income to continue the product). But again, only time will tell.

In the meantime, gentle Creative Cloud users, please try to understand and have compassion for the hard-working plug-in developers who make your creative life so much more efficient (or in some cases, possible at all). And always remember that when Adobe upgrades your software, you may need to pay a few bucks to support the rest of your Creative Cloud ecosystem—including sending a few dollars to your friendly neighborhood plug-in developer.

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