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.

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