Adobe Says Goodbye to Its Suite. Is Microsoft Next?

The creative-software giant says all its new features will be part of Creative Cloud, its pay-as-you-go service.

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A year ago, Adobe started selling Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and its other creative software in a new way: as a service called Creative Cloud. They’re still big, powerful applications that you download and install on a Windows PC or a Mac. But paying one monthly fee — $50 for the standard version, or $30 for people who already own Creative Suite CS3 or higher — gets you access to all of the company’s creative apps, plus cloud-based services that tie them together and let you store your projects in one online repository.

Today, at its MAX conference in Los Angeles, Adobe announced a big upgrade to Creative Cloud. Among other changes, it involves even more cloud-related features, like the ability to sync a program’s settings across all the computers you use it on, and the option to download 175 type families offered by the company’s excellent Typekit web fonts service for use on your computer.

But equally noteworthy was what Adobe didn’t announce: an upgrade to Creative Suite 6, the conventional, boxed, pay-one-time version of its bundle of software. While the company will go on selling CS6 and issuing bug fixes, anything new will be available only to Creative Cloud customers, in new CC versions of the apps, like Photoshop CC. It’s at least as striking a shift as when Adobe introduced the first version of Creative Suite in 2003, thereby winding down its era of stand-alone apps.

And even though today’s news is less about technology than it is about purchasing options, it’s still big — not just for Adobe, but for the software industry, period. It’s another nail in the coffin of the whole business model of software, as it existed in the pre-Internet days. Even software that isn’t a web-based service is now being priced, sold and upgraded as if it were one.

It’s not hard to see why Adobe likes the idea of Creative Cloud: it gets people into a mode of paying ongoing fees, year in and year out, to get access to Adobe products. The company no longer has to sweat its way through years with no suite upgrade, wondering whether its next major revision will be exciting enough to be a bonanza for its bottom line. And by ceasing major development efforts on Creative Suite, it can focus all its efforts on Creative Cloud rather than juggle two variants of the same product line.

But is Creative Cloud a better deal for Adobe customers than Creative Suite was? There’s no one answer to that question that’s applicable to everyone, since everybody uses software differently. Basically: Creative Cloud offers lots of value if you use multiple Adobe apps and like having access to the newest features right away. But there’s also a contingent of users who cling to old versions of software for as long as possible, wringing every nickel out of it. They aren’t going to be enthralled at the prospect of being asked to pay a monthly fee rather than one (very) occasional lump sum.

“The reason we’re doing this now,” Adobe’s senior director of marketing for Creative Cloud, Scott Morris, tells me, “is because [Creative Cloud] adoption has been so amazing.” (In the year since the service was launched, the company has signed up 500,000 paying customers, plus another 2 million who take advantage of free Creative Cloud cloud-storage features.) While Adobe is telling its customers that Creative Suite is a dead end, its move isn’t risk-free: in a worst-case scenario for Adobe, a critical mass of users might decide that Creative Suite 6 is just fine and choose to avoid Creative Cloud for as long as possible.

By continuing to offer Creative Suite 6 indefinitely, Adobe is easing the pain for conservative types who don’t like the idea of Creative Cloud; they’ll only be compelled to switch once the company offers them new features they find irresistible.

Then again, it also wants to make Creative Cloud attractive even for folks who want to move at their own, possibly lackadaisical pace. The company plans to release new features for its apps as they’re ready rather than in less frequent big-bang upgrades, but it won’t automatically upgrade anyone. Creative Cloud subscribers will be able to download and install the new stuff when they’re ready, and to roll back to an earlier version if they encounter any problems.

All of this leaves me with one question: What does this mean for Microsoft Office? Like Adobe, Microsoft very much wants its customers to think of its applications as a service and to pay for them that way — that’s the whole idea behind Office 365, a service which is to traditional Office as Creative Cloud is to Creative Suite. Microsoft has priced Office 365 to make it an appealing proposition, but it hasn’t yet forced the issue by saying it won’t update Office’s conventional version.

I’m guessing that its road map involves the newest conventional version of Office, Office 2013, being either the last one, or the next-to-last one. But Office users are notoriously cautious upgraders, and Microsoft’s track record for getting its customers to embrace change is spotty. (Exhibit A: the continuing popularity of Windows XP.) Even after the company declares that Office is a service rather than a suite henceforth, it may be many years before all its customers get with the program. It’s just a matter of whether the holdouts seem to represent a sensible plurality of Office users, or whether they look like Luddite dead-enders.