Like it or not, Adobe Creative Cloud has a monopoly on our muscle memory

Over the years, users develop deep skills with the products they rely on. That skill set is a powerful asset to software vendors. Here's why maintaining a consistent interface is so vitally important to retaining dedicated, skilled users as customers year after year.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I tried. I really did. But at the final hour, muscle memory won out over frugality and semi-righteous indignation. Even though I promised myself I wouldn't, I signed up for yet another year of Creative Cloud.

I have been cranky ever since Adobe moved Creative Cloud to mandatory subscription. It's not the fact that Creative Cloud has a yearly fee. Many of the products I use have yearly fees. Adobe's developers put in a tremendous amount of work, and the yearly (or monthly) annuity helps make sure the mission-critical software I use stays available and up-to-date.

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Creative cloud's usage limitations

What peeves me to no end are the use shackles that come with Creative Cloud. Most cloud applications allow you to use them on whatever devices you have. While the machine count allowances of most cloud applications aren't unlimited, they might as well be. It's rare that a machine has to be delicensed for another machine to be used.

Even Microsoft Office, which is the closest analog to Creative Cloud's mix of native applications and cloud services, allows use on up to five computers on a single account.

But not Creative Cloud. Oh, no. If you need to use it on more than two machines, you're expected to create a whole new account for every two machines you need to use it on. One of the touted benefits of Creative Cloud is its cloud storage. Using it, you can share design resources and projects between machines. Between two machines.

But here's the catch: If you sign up for a second account to be able to use the Creative Cloud apps on more than two machines, the cloud storage from one account isn't immediately available on the other account. You can share files and libraries, but you have to explicitly set up sharing for every file or folder between the two accounts to make it all work.

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That said, setting up two full Creative Cloud accounts can get very expensive, very fast. Creative Cloud, in its full application suite variant, normally costs $52.99 per month per account. That's over $600 per year. There is a Black Friday deal on now that reduces that to $39.99 per month, but that's still costly.

If I wanted to run Creative Cloud on my four machines, I'd be looking at $1,200 a year or so, and increased inconvenience. Wow!

Compare that to Office 365

Now, compare that to Microsoft Office 365. The Office 365 Personal plan is $69.99 per year. You're allowed to run Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook, and other supporting apps on up to five machines. That's a lot more generous -- and wildly less expensive -- than Creative Cloud. But it gets better. If you pony up for the Office 365 Home license, you can install the Office apps for up to six people in your family -- and each can have up to five installations on five machines.

I know that some argument might be made that Photoshop, say, is more complex than Word. But really? Photoshop and Illustrator. Word and Excel. Both are deep applications that have been used in work and at home for years. And before you tell me that you can't use applications from the Office 365 Home plan to do work for work, I checked. It's perfectly OK with Microsoft to use the programs to do work for work.

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It's also not like being generous with Office 365 usage is hurting Microsoft. In the past few years, Microsoft's market value has tripled, and, according to The New York Times, on Friday it replaced Apple as the world's most valuable company.

My plan to switch off Creative Cloud

Creative Cloud costs almost as much per month as Office 365 costs for a year -- and even at that price, I can't run it on all my machines.

This is not a new complaint from me. In 2015, I complained that Creative Cloud's licensing was stuck in the pre-cloud era. It hasn't changed. What was new was my plan for dealing with it.

As many of you know, I just upgraded my main work machine to a spiffy new 2018 Mac mini with all the fixin's. Since it was a fresh install, I made a decision: No more Creative Cloud.

A year or so ago, I stopped using Premiere Pro because it crashed all the time. I've been using Final Cut Pro X and haven't looked back. In fact, I was so happy with the change that I decided to go all in on Macs in large part because of the enormous productivity benefits I've been gaining in Final Cut compared to Premiere.

Photoshop and Illustrator are the two other main applications I use in Creative Cloud. I've used Photoshop since it was distributed with the Barneyscan, back around 1990 or so. Yep, when Photoshop first came to market, it was bonusware for a high-priced slide scanner.

I am still not an extreme Photoshop expert, but I have the muscle memory. I don't have to think hard to do anything. I just sit down and do it. After all, if you do anything for almost 30 years, you kind of develop some level of proficiency.

I've actually been using Adobe Illustrator longer than Photoshop, but in less depth. I don't create illustrations with Illustrator. I don't have that skill. But I've long used Illustrator to tweak illustrations, move a line here or there, delete elements, and change colors. Once again, I have the muscle memory.

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Even with all that experience, the high price and the limit on the number of computers allowed with Creative Cloud just got under my skin. It annoyed me. It wasn't right. Every time I had to de-license one machine to enable the license on another, I took it personally.

So that's why, when setting up the new Mac mini, I decided to switch. I bought copies of Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer for fifty bucks each. Affinity has no restrictions on the number of machines you can use, as long as they're all on same Apple ID.

They're both exceptional programs, deep, and powerful. They are quite functionally comparable to Photoshop and Illustrator.

My plan was simple. Instead of paying $600 a year and delicensing and licensing programs every hour or so, or paying $1,200 a year to avoid that inconvenience, I'd pay $100, once, and just have the Affinity programs on my machines. I would no longer have to be peeved. My righteous indignation would have been quenched.

That was my plan. It did not survive a week.

Muscle memory vs. my plan

It was about 8:30pm and my wife and I were having dinner at the local Chinese restaurant. I had General Tso's, and she had something else hot and tasty. My phone binged. It was a work emergency.

There was a problem with the images in one of my projects, a project that had to be completed and delivered by 9am the next morning. The images we were provided just wouldn't display properly. I needed to repair them immediately.

My wife and cut dinner short, bagged up some soup and extra Tso, and took the ride home. While my wife took the pooch out for a walk, I shot upstairs to my office to get to work.

And I hit a brick wall.

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I did not know how to fix the problem in Affinity Photo. I'd been using the program for about a week, and during that week I'd learned quite a lot. But each new feature took an hour or two to figure out, and more time to develop proficiency. I needed to repair the problematic images right away.

I needed Photoshop. I knew exactly how to do what was needed in Photoshop. It would take 30 seconds per image, max. In less than 10 minutes, I'd be able to solve the problem and go back downstairs. My leftover Tso's would still be warm.

But I didn't have Photoshop anymore. I'd gone cold turkey on Adobe.

There are times in everyone's life when you have to practice #adulting. You have to make the big decisions, choose what's right for the moment, and have integrity at the moment of choice. I could remain peeved and Adobe abstinent, or I could get my job done on a tight and unyielding deadline.

In other words, I could cheap out on principle, or I could pay up, rely on my decades of muscle memory, and do what needed to be done.

So, I broke my solemn vow. I logged into the Adobe site, signed back up for another year of Creative Cloud, and downloaded the software. It took five minutes to get Photoshop installed and another ten to make the necessary fixes. Fifteen minutes after coming home from dinner, I delivered the fixes.

The fact is, Adobe has me where it hurts: In my skill set. I might someday develop the same muscle memory for Affinity Photo. After a little over a year, I'm now almost -- but not quite -- as proficient in Final Cut as I was in Premiere Pro.

The value of a muscle memory monopoly

While there are certainly days when you can take your time and learn new skills, there are also days when you have to perform at the speed of work. That's when you need to be able to call on your years of experience and skill, and just get the job done.

That proficiency, that muscle memory, is a monopoly that application vendors have on us. Even if you go out of your way to learn multiple, competing tools, the main tools you know are the main tools you know. When it comes down to it, we have developed a relationship tied to a vendor's interface and product features that's irreproducible, even though cloners often try.

This is an enormous asset that vendors have. It's also an asset that vendors often squander. Every time a vendor changes an interface, moves menu items to a different location, modifies behavior so that what you knew last week isn't applicable after an update, the vendor making the change squanders their monopoly on muscle memory.

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Sure, developers need to innovate and make changes, improve on features and add capabilities. But if too much is changed at once, there's a risk. If it's just as hard to adjust to a new version as a competitor's offering, then the muscle memory monopoly is gone.

Cloud vendors, in particular, need to keep this in mind, because users don't need to install an update to initiate a change. Cloud vendors often make changes that manifest between logins, so an application you were completely comfortable with last night may look and feel completely different when you log on in the morning.

These changes cause stress with users, and they cost accumulated loyalty. Every time a major change is delivered to users, the knot tying users to an application is loosened slightly. Make too many changes, make them too quickly or make them too extreme, and users will no longer feel tied to an application that looks as different as any from a competitor.

On the other hand, those vendors who keep applications reasonably consistent from release to release, from year to year, so the muscle memory transfers along with the upgrades, and even those users like me, users who feel used and abused by licensing terms and pricing, will -- by virtue of muscle memory- - remain tethered to otherwise unappealing products.

It's not what Adobe did that induced me to renew. It's what Adobe didn't do: It didn't break or change their interface enough to make my choice between Photoshop and Affinity Photo a wash. As a result, Adobe had an accumulated asset in my Photoshop skill set, and that asset resulted in another year with me as a subscriber.

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This idea of muscle memory is very powerful. If you're considering changing apps across your organization, be wary of the impact that change might have on productivity and morale. Changing apps might negate muscle memory and long-developed skills across your workforce. It's something to keep in mind as a factor, beyond just the dollars and cents, when planning change.

As for me, as annoyed I am with Adobe for its restrictions, I find it very comforting to have Photoshop and Illustrator back in my toolkit.
What applications does your muscle memory live in? Let us know how it informs your decisions about what to work with in the TalkBacks below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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