Content Developers and the Cloudy Future

My wife, a graphic designer/publications gal (not her actual title), was worried by Adobe’s recent announcement that their entire creative suite will now be cloud-based.  After reading the actual Adobe press release/happy marketdroidspeak, it looks like things are a bit less dire than she feared. Designers will still be able to download and install the “Creative Suite CC.” locally, rather than depending on always having reliable net access just to use the basic tools of their trade. Adobe, of course, couches all of this in happy cloud-talk… you’ll seamlessly collaborate, shooting files off to people hither and yon, and you’ll get to show off your work (key for the many designer freelancers out there). You’ll be free! You’ll be happy!

These features seem nice and all, but not something that really sounds like it has to be tied to Adobe’s Cloud. Using Dropbox, social media, and other third-party services probably can come close, or even surpass what Adobe has cooked up. So, it’s nicely integrated, yes… but not something that is world-shattering.

What’s not mentioned in the hype is how this may dramatically shift access and ownership of a designer’s own set of tools.

The implications of this below.

The move to the cloud turns Adobe’s creative suite from something you buy and install (and, most importantly, control) to something that you subscribe to. I’m not sure if somewhere buried in the mounds of orgasmically ecstatic prose about this totally cloudtastic development is the answer to a rather unsettling question: what rights do you have to access the Creative Suite software? Especially, what happens if you stop paying them?

I’m too lazy to go hunting for that information on their site, and it’s not obvious in any of their marketing materials, for obvious reasons. This is a really vital question for any sort of content developer, though: Can you access your content if your subscription lapses? Could you use the locally-installed version of the Creative Suite CC to at least export your content if you are no longer a subscriber? Or does your rights to your content evaporate like a fluffy cloud on searing summer day? Do you always have a local copy? And what about the legal implications of all your creative work being stored on Adobe’s servers? What alterntives are there if Adobe’s systems go down?

Basic access to the tools of your trade is something that everyone who develops content—designers, writers, animators, video artists, and more—have to be concerned about. If you no longer own your tools, your access to your own content is threatened. If you cannot access the tools to publish and improve your work, what then? You can’t go back and fix a typo and output a new version of a manual. You can’t go back to the source of an image you edited to change it for your customer. You can’t access the things you cut out of a video and edit them back in. Sure, you might be able to do some rework by importing the final output of that lost tool into a new tool. However, you always compromise quality, and always costs you dearly in time. Having had to do that for a number of documents (namely, scanning in hardcopies of documents we lost the sources of), I can tell you it is a huge time sink. You are usually better off starting from scratch.

In my own work as a technical writer, I’ve seen other tool vendors go down the cloudy path. The software we currently use to author our documentation  (which shall remain nameless) sucks. Really. Really. Badly. As in it cannot properly cut and paste content. Or handle word wrapping correctly. And spell checking sucks (it cannot handle words that are wrapped in tables, for example. It spell checks each half of the word separately). You know, the basics that most software suites have had nailed down since the mid 90’s. This company proudly announced their cloud product a year or two ago, and it seemed obvious that this is going to be their main focus from now on.

They had their own arguments to entice us onto their cloud: They would manage everything. They would tune the software. You wouldn’t have to install software locally, just use a browser (not just any browser, it turns out… only Internet Explorer need apply). You could just write without a care in the world… they’ll handle all of the messy details for you. Theirs is the perfect basket for all of your eggs.

None of these features were really compelling to me or my coworkers. We have an IT department to manage the necessary server and a techie (namely, me) that can install and manage the software. Installing client software isn’t much of a hassle for the writers in my group. And there are the huge negatives with this proposition: what happens if their servers go down right as we’re readying a product release? What if they upgrade their software and it breaks our documentation just before deadline? (That’s happened to my boss at a previous company where they used another cloud-based documentation system. Upgrades whether you wanted them or not!) Worst of all, what if he company suddenly went bankrupt, yanking their servers offline? Where is our content? What rights would we have to get it back. If we could even get it, what could we do with it if it is locked in their proprietary format?

We looked at this offering for a whole 5 seconds before saying “screw that” and started searching for an alternative. One that’s not cloud-based. One that we can control ourselves. We can still maintain the old client-server based system as long as we need to. Even after we migrate to a new tool, we can always go back to the old system (since we have the installation files) to publish an old set of documents. We may never need to… but then again, we might. Just like designers may never need to go back to an old project saved on a cloud-based system that they no longer subscribe to. But maybe they might.

So, why would anyone move to the cloud and, more more importantly, why would anyone move to a pay-as-go-you-model? For users, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. You give up security of knowing your tools will be available when you need them, and potentially end up paying a lot more money for your tools if you tended not to buy every upgrade. I know, for a lot of software suites, after they get to a certain level of features, upgrades aren’t really appealing anymore. Can you name a killer must-have feature that has been added to Microsoft Office in the last decade that justifies paying for an upgrade? Yeah, I thought so.

The pay as you go price is especially daunting since you can’t just sign up month to month for Adobe’s cloud. You have to pony up a year ahead of time.  In the case of Adobe’s cloud, the answer is simple: you have no choice. Adobe essentially has a monopoly on high-end publishing and design tools. If you’re a graphic designer who wants to work on the same platform that most of your colleagues, employers, and supplies use, you’re stuck with Adobe’s suite.

Pay-as-you-go has been a holy grail for software companies since the dawn of the Internet era. Microsoft has long threatened to go this route. For them, the payoff would be even bigger than Adobe, since many companies resist upgrading their software. As of last year, my employer was still standardized on Windows 2007, which was around 6 years behind. That’s 6 years of rent they could have charged in a pay-as-you-go model. Why would you want to sell the cow once when you can sell the milk perpetually?

The other issue is the loss of control of your tools. In the past, you bought your software, installed it on your system, and were free to use it perpetually. Eventually, you may decide to upgrade the software. Or, you may find that you needed to upgrade your computer or operating system to take on greater workloads. All of that was under your control, though. If you kept on doing just what you were doing, you shouldn’t encounter any issues.

By tying their creative suite to their cloud,  Adobe is now in a position to force users to take upgrades, whether they want them or not. There will certainly come a day when version 1.0 of their cloud-based suite installed on your system will no longer work with their cloud. When? Only Adobe knows. What happens if they demand everyone upgrade their clients to a new buggy version that breaks your content? Or, worse, their upgrade demands a new operating system or more resources than your computer has? You dance to their tune or you lose access to your tools.

Forced upgrades are already a reality with another sorta-cloud based system: online games. Recently, my wife had to quit World of Warcraft since their new game client required a newer version of Mac OS than was installed on her Mac. Her computer had happily run World of Warcraft for years without issues. Then one day, they rolled out the update. If she wanted to play, she had to install the upgraded client, but couldn’t. So, she had to quit. With the move to the cloud, Adobe’s users could be faced with the same dilemma… having to upgrade operating systems and hardware not on their own schedules, but on Adobe’s.

(Insert conspiracy theory here about how cloud-based software companies will collude with hardware manufacturers to speed up the obsolescence cycle and re-awaken the stalled PC market).

Fortunately for me, there are many document authoring tools out there that aren’t heading for the cloud (at least, not yet…). Hopefully, there will always be non-cloud based alternatives for the tools I need.


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