Bob Dylan said it best: The times they are a-changing. Adobe is officially going subscription based. But will the untested model work?
People love to steal Adobe programs. For years, the company's design programs have ranked among the most popular torrents on sites like Pirate Bay. Photoshop is in fact so ubiquitous it has undergone that rare transformation from a proper noun into a verb— yet try finding someone with a legitimate license for their copy.
This week Adobe announced the next versions of the software will be sold by monthly subscription rather than as one-time purchases. So, instead of paying $699 for the newest edition of Photoshop, people who want to design fliers for their band's next show or paste Nicolas Cage into family reunion photos will be able to do so for as little as $19.99 a month.
Subscribing to Photoshop or Dreamweaver must feel as strange as a carpenter would paying a monthly fee to use a hammer.
The shift is part of a rapidly consolidating future based on access to services and content rather than discrete products. If the Internet can be thought of as a stream, the future of commerce on it will come from people carving out small tributaries to which they charge fees to access. This has been easiest to rationalize with the library model used by Netflix and Spotify, both of which have massive stores of content available for monthly subscriptions.
In a letter to investors, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently argued that the world is quickly changing from "channels to apps," each of which will come with its own entry fee. In the days of channels, when content was broadcast through airwaves that were freely accessible by anyone with a television, money was generated through advertising and syndication. Changing from broadcast to Internet has made it possible to charge consumers—who've already paid for their television sets, Roku boxes, electricity, and monthly Internet access—an additional fee to get HBOGo, or Hulu or Amazon Prime.
While this model works well for apps whose primary purpose is passive consumption, it's not at all clear that it can work for applications intended to be productive. There is something rational about paying for access to things that have already been made for entertainment. Spectacles are expensive, and the audience that wants to watch them should contribute to the cost of their creation in some fractional way.
Productivity applications occupy an uneasy middle ground between idle pastime and outright labor. For a web designer, subscribing to Photoshop or Dreamweaver must feel as strange as a carpenter would paying a monthly fee to use a hammer. It makes sense to subscribe to a channel because it's an empty vessel that needs to constantly replenish itself with new content, but there's no way to rationalize having to subscribe to a tool.
That Adobe is even trying a subscription model is a symptom of how the borders between productive and non-productive work have blurred in an age in which everything becomes data on server farms.
Photoshop perfectly encapsulates the collapsed distinction between work and leisure, with one person spending an afternoon making a mock-up for a client pitch at an advertising agency and another spending an afternoon amusing himself by inserting the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man into photos of Hurricane Sandy. The physical exertion is identical, but the motivation and the desired end result distinguish work from play. The advertising agent makes a fantasy to sell someone else's perfume or hotel, while the jokester creates his own fantasy to share with friends and whoever else comes along for the ride.
This distinction was easiest to maintain when the end results were tied to industrial printing presses or industrial labs where film prints were duplicated by the thousands and then shipped off around the country. The digitization of the most superfluous parts of our culture has freed many media industries from these prohibitive cost constraints, but they have also delegitimized the once admired labor that went into creating new content.
One of the fundamental myths of the Internet is that it made information free, something that's been true only in fits and starts. The move to wall off large catalogs of information behind proprietary subscription models was inevitable. A less predictable outcome was the idea that the creation of free information for the Internet should come with a fee of privilege attached.
If the end product is intended to be free, the only option left is to charge those who want to produce it—and this may prove to be the least stable model of all. It's hard to imagine how long a person will be yoked into an Adobe subscription fee before realizing that all those GIFs and fliers and funny jokes aren't worth the price.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.