Adobe Shenanigans

Last year, Adobe made a bold strategic move to shift its entire software line from purchased licenses to a cloud-based subscription program. A few hundred thousand words have been written about this across the internet. In general, I like it a lot. I'm a pretty satisfied subscriber, personally. As a professional.

As a professor, I am apoplectic.

Most places I have worked have computer labs for students. My University spends a lot (a LOT) of money maintaining the software in those labs so that college students don't have to buy the it themselves. In the older Adobe model, the student price for the "Master Collection" of software, which contains everything that a student will need to do general and specialized media work, is about a thousand dollars.

(note: yes, there were bundles of software that were only, say, $500 for students, but are only useful in more narrow applications. A typical filmmaking/media student needs software for video, graphics, web, and graphics. Each smaller bundle is missing an essential couple of tools. And no one buys individual Adobe apps because they are priced in such a way that makes it prohibitive. Well played, Adobe.)

Enter Creative Cloud. For a student, it's only $20/month if you commit to the whole year (then it's $30/month). If you want to buy only the months you need for a semester, for example, it's $50/month. A hell of a lot better than a thousand bucks for something that gets outdated in 18 months. Less than a cell phone data plan. Good stuff.

But consider this example. I teach at a state school in the South. I teach a subject where students may only be taking a couple classes, not necessarily committing their careers. I teach many first generation college students, students working at least a full time job to pay their way. Using professional-grade media software assumes owning a machine that can run it properly. As an institution, we decided that we owe it to our students to provide a way to work professionally without buying into the whole ecosystem as an undergraduate. So, we have labs. All over campus, we have labs with good computers, and we've kept an updated site license to the Adobe Master Collection.

To schools, Adobe has shouted "screw you!" from their rooftops.

The usual way of licensing software like this for college labs is to buy a bunch of "seats." As a thought experiment, let's say we need 50 seats, which means that 50 people can use the software simultaneously. But there might be, say, 200 computers where students might do appropriate work in different places on campus, with different hours, different peripherals, etc. So, you install the software on all of them, but they are keyed so that only 50 will work at once. If you get a spike in demand and all of a sudden you need 60 seats, you buy ten more seats and everything is fine.

Until now. Adobe's new way of dealing with education can be summed up in two parts. First, make it as confusing as possible while making it seem like you're getting more value than ever. Second, and most importantly, make schools subscribe under a "per computer/per year" plan.

In the previous Adobe incarnation, our sample school serving 50 students across 200 possible computers in different labs would cost about $50,000 in a one-time purchase. The school might hold that purchase for two versions before dropping that money again for the next version, but it'd still work. Under the new plan, the price changes to about $300 per machine per year. Our hypothetical school now pays $60,000 for the same thing, but it the software disappears in one year. If the school does not pay again the next year, all the software stops working and they have nothing.

Luckily, academic funding is always increasing, especially at state institutions. OH WAIT.

This move by Adobe is not ignorant of the larger academic landscape at all. It's brilliantly simple, actually—they clearly don't want schools to be providing software this way anymore. The obvious goal is to force a shift so that every single student has to subscribe individually. 

Less affluent schools, state-funded schools, schools with much lower tuition and technology fees, will suffer the most. Schools (like my institution) feel strongly that it's wrong to force undergraduates to commit to buying pro applications and workstation-class machines to run them properly. We will need to either re-evaluate our ethical stance on the matter or pay dearly.

Think about it, what are the options for any reasonably managed school? One response is to replace every piece of Adobe software with something else... and unless you only use one of the apps, that's an unlikely situation. Some of the apps have quasi-viable open source options. But those mostly suck, and if you're into the video realm then forget it. The truth is that Adobe makes important applications that need to be available for students to become professionals. Another option is to stay with the old CS6 version forever, but that will only work for a while until it makes your program look embarrassing.

Adobe seems to be betting that schools will give up and shift the new model they are shoving down our throats. Maybe schools will subsidize the individual costs through some other mechanism. Maybe schools will shrug and pass the cost on to the students—they must reason that it's a  modest cost to an individual student (after they've purchased a machine to run it, and after tuition, etc.). You can imagine Adobe beancounters saying "it's still less than the cost of science textbooks per year! Write it into the syllabus and they can put it on their student loans!"

Either way, the goal is the real prize—direct access to the individual student information, unencumbered by pesky schools. They'll have names, addresses, CC numbers, and the ability to track 1:1 who uses what software. Precious, precious information that schools have been obfuscating with these selfish, anonymizing labs. Luckily they have a history of keeping that data responsibly. OH WAIT.

It is not clear that anything can be done, other than capitulate to an oversimplified pseudo-libertarian refrain of "you have choices, vote with your wallets herp derp." I am part of an academic/industry team that is going to try to convince Adobe that this is a huge tactical mistake (I can't believe they don't see the damage they are doing). There is a preliminary survey that is gathering some baseline data to paint an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. If your institution is facing this issue, please take this survey, or forward it to the appropriate person at your institution.

UFVA Adobe Creative Cloud Survey

Whoops, gotta go, Acrobat wants to update... COMING, DARLING...