Adobe says it will no longer sell its software to customers — and that new business model is nearly as crazy as it sounds. If you want to use future versions of Photoshop, InDesign, or any of their other design applications, you will pay for a subscription to their cloud service. Quite obviously, most customers won’t be willing, or able, to pay. Adobe introduced its current subscription model a year ago, and the company frankly admits the accompanying price increase has met with resistance from customers.
What Adobe won’t say quite so directly is that it is going high-end — abandoning its core group of customers, the core creative market, in order to squeeze more money out of the busy, successful designers who are among its customers. This might work in the short run but it is a losing strategy in the long run. Historically, no one has maintained a strong presence in professional tools without serving the middle of the market. For example, the most respected names in construction tools are the ones you can buy at Sears and Home Depot. The top names in guitars, Gibson, Fender, and Ovation, may make most of their money on guitars that sells for $2,000 and up, but they aren’t shy about offering guitars for around $1,000. Those are prices the average professional guitarist can afford, so those are the guitars you actually hear and see on records and in concerts, and that is what makes a guitar’s reputation.
There is a more fundamental reason the middle of the market is so important. People don’t learn the skills of graphic design, or guitar for that matter, on high-end equipment that even the average professional can’t afford. They tend to learn using the tools that the largest number of professionals are using. Then, once they have learned to work at a professional level, it is not that easy to get them to abandon their tools and learn new ones. If Adobe will not supply the middle of the market, then whoever fills that vacuum will come to dominate the entire market — that’s the lesson of history.
In Adobe’s case, its time may be running out anyway. It did not add many new features to its creative applications during the Creative Suite era, focusing instead on reshuffling its user interface with each incremental release. The result is that open source projects now are not that far away from matching the capabilities of Adobe’s cornerstone applications. Still, it would seem Adobe could hang on a little longer if it weren’t forcing most of its customers to cast about for alternatives, just at a time when the alternatives are starting to look attractive.