Un-Creative Cloud: Adobe licensing stuck in pre-cloud era

Some of the old-school packaged software providers are having a tough time going "all-in" with cloud services. In Adobe's case, David Gewirtz shows why Creative Cloud has some limitations that don't fit with what we expect from modern cloud licensing.

I have long had a beef with companies that set up troublesome policies that inconvenience their loyal customers for the benefit of some perceived product marketing necessity.

Today, I have Adobe's Creative Cloud product in my sights. I'm reminded of John Oliver's HBO segment, "Why is this a thing?"

Just about two years ago, Adobe ditched individual product sales for a monthly subscription licensing model. The product most of us are familiar with is Creative Cloud, which (depending on how you configure it) includes Photoshop and a bevy of powerful Adobe creative applications.

Given how hugely expensive the individual Adobe apps were and the value each provides, a monthly subscription actually made the products accessible to a wider audience.

Adobe sweetened the deal, giving Creative Cloud customers additional features, including CC-only features in many of the big apps (I seem to recall the wonderful Puppet Warp being a CC-only Photoshop feature).

Adobe also added cloud services, including a shared file area (similar to Dropbox, but for Adobe-related assets) and the ability to share settings so when you jumped from one computer to another, your settings follow you.

Hold onto that thought: when you jump from one computer to another, your settings follow you. That's where this rant begins to get some traction.

As I've shared with you over the last few weeks, I've been in the market for a new laptop. I chose the refreshed MacBook Pro and so far, in my first week, I've been happy with it.

Since I brought in that machine, I've been configuring my three main Macs so that I can jump between them at any time, and have all my documents and resources at hand. A key part of that process is making sure all of my applications are running on each.

I already had Creative Cloud on my iMac and my Mac mini. Creative Cloud, as provided in the main product marketed to creative professionals, only supports use on two computers. I checked on this with Adobe support, and this is their direct statement, "You may install software on up to two computers, These two computers can be Windows, Mac OS, or one each."

Okay, but I have three computers. According to the support guy, there's no way to just buy a license for one additional machine. His recommendation was this: "I am sorry it is not possible to activate an individual subscription on three computers with the same ID. You need to buy another under your alternate email address."

Let's ignore the issue of the cost of buying another full license. I can live with that (although I'm used to buying a cloud service and using it on any machine -- that's why it's a cloud service). No, let's look at how this policy of not being able to use the same ID and needing to use an alternate email address.

What do you think that breaks? Yep: everything. No more asset sharing. No more cloud sharing. No more settings sharing. Why? Because you can't use the same ID.

Your workaround options

Creative people often use more than one computer. For example, I often have one machine crunching video while another has got 20 windows open for Illustrator work, and another one is being used for coding or website design. I jump between them a lot. One of my editors uses a couple of machines for work, one at home, and one at church, where he manages a newsletter. It's a different usage pattern, but it's still one person and a pile of machines.

This is the cloud. Gmail doesn't require you to limit the machines you can access it on. Evernote can be accessed everywhere. You can even read your Kindle books across so many devices that it's a very rare occasion you have to deactivate a device, and when you do, it's one that's been out of service for a year or more. Heck, even Netflix allows client applications on too many devices to count and my wife and I can each watch a stream at the same time without any increased fee.

Cloud = one central base and many distributed clients. Adobe does not get this.

If I want to keep sharing assets and settings using my Creative Cloud account (using the Creative Cloud account I had to change because Adobe got so badly hacked a few years back that we were all dangerously exposed) I have to deactivate some machine and activate some others.

Unfortunately, it's not consistent. I tested it this morning. I installed Creative Cloud on my new MacBook Pro and as part of the setup, got this message about needing to deactivate other computers. Since I wanted to see what would happen if I was working on the MacBook Pro from a coffee shop, I had it sign me out of "all other computers or devices".

Well, sort of.

It signed me out of the Mac mini. It did not sign me out of the iMac. Further, after signing into Creative Cloud on the MacBook Pro, I signed back in on my Mac mini. Digging up user name and password is a bit of a pain, but not that bad.

After signing back into the Mac mini, I was able to get into Photoshop on all three machines, even after reboots.

The bottom line is the deactivating/reactivating dance required between machines is a pain, but not really that difficult. What bothers me is the inconsistency of it. As a busy professional, I want to be able to predict behavior and, more to the point, remove all bottlenecks to my workflow.

Adobe's requirement that you deactivate/activate machines willy-nilly rather than allowing a purchase of more machines on the license with the SAME ID is anachronistic for our cloud-centric times.

The team license workaround

If you want to share your assets across more than two machines and avoid the activation/deactivation bottleneck, Adobe does offer a team license. This is actually a much more usable approach, because team members can share assets and settings (at least according to support guy Matthew).

Pricing isn't even that much higher. Starting at $19.99/mo for Photoshop and going up to $49.99 for the whole shebang, it's roughly the same as the main pricing that Adobe offers most users. I have a $199/year license, so I'm paying effectively $16 or so per month -- and then the team license is considerably more expensive.

Team licensing isn't a bad idea, but it's not made clear to the typical buyer that it exists as an option or that it offers sharing at the level the Adobe rep told me it would.

My concern is that the team license doesn't (or may not) behave the same way as a single individual license, in that the Adobe ID governs all the shared resources and assets.

The team license requires decomissioning one employee when one leaves and recommissioning when adding a new hire, so I'm thinking that the sharing might not be as native as I was told. That's a guess.

There also doesn't appear to be a way to migrate from an individual license to a team license. So once you decide you need to upgrade and that the team license might work, you can't because you're already locked into the individual program.

I'm actually baffled by a few things. One, why is the team license generally the same price as the regular license and if so, why isn't team functionality marketed as part of the product? Two, other than managing identities, what exactly does the team license provide? Neither the site nor the Adobe rep could give me a solid answer.

Chunking up, why should this be an issue with a cloud product? My preferences on my Gmail here on the Mac I'm writing this on are the same as my preferences on Gmail on the PC in the other room. Granted, the mix of desktop-installed apps and cloud services is messy, but Adobe needs to make that merge point cleaner.

The cloud wall

Adobe doesn't put up as big a wall as the company could, but it's clear that some of the company's policies are still baked into the pre-cloud era. This shouldn't need lots of research, changing plans, spending two hours on support chat, etc.

Instead, when you have a cloud service, you should just be able to sign into it from any device and use it. Period. No hassle. No special limits.

Everything else is unnecessary friction.

As for me, I'll probably install a cheap Photoshop clone on my MacBook Pro and unless it's really necessary to deactivate my existing licenses, I'll just use the clone. I'm not sure that's what Adobe intended when they started talking about a Creative Cloud.

They seem to be missing the spirit of both creative and cloud in their current policy.

Microsoft vs. Adobe

I want to end this with one final thought, which is about how Microsoft does application subscriptions. I've been pretty brutal to Microsoft over the last year, but in this case it's time to throw them some love.

A good parallel to Adobe's Creative Cloud offering is Microsoft's Office 365. For $15/mo/user (and it's less for consumer licenses) we were allowed to install five copies of the Office Desktop apps (not two that Adobe limits users to), got full access to OneDrive, and all of the cloud-related services offered by Exchange and SharePoint.

I think Adobe could take a page from Microsoft and increase its number-of-machines limit (and even, perhaps, reduce its price). You get a lot with Office 365 and you get a lot from Creative Cloud, but the difference between $15/user for five machines and $50/user for two machines is huge.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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