Cool reception forecast for Adobe's cloud-based CS


What can crop, stroke, convert, clone and resize and is found in pretty much every printer's pre-press studio across the nation? Not a joke or a riddle but a pretty straightforward question. The answer is, of course, Adobe software.

It was always going to be the case, then, that a change as significant as switching the long-established Creative Suite package over to a subscription-only model, would create controversy. Most printers will have one or more Adobe programs to handle their own work and to open and output incoming customer files, and such a switch, worry many, could see printers forking out much more for relatively little gain.

But is this the case? Will most users actually end up paying more following this summer’s switch? And what exactly does this new Creative Cloud subscription-only package entail features-wise?

The new payment model works thus: you’re now obliged to sign up to one of several ‘membership plans’ which mean paying monthly fees forever. If you stop paying, Adobe switches off its programs remotely and you can’t run them. You will no longer be able to buy programs outright with occasional upgrade fees as before. Adobe calls that way a ‘perpetual license’ as it claims you never actually owned them anyway.

If you already have an earlier Creative Suite it will still run forever. The most recent, CS6, will be supported but Adobe won’t upgrade except to keep up with operating system changes.

Fortunately the monthly fees are modest so far, and if you go for ‘Complete’ plans you get a huge amount of software – some 20 programs. More and more printers also offer web design, cross-media and digital publication services, so more and more will want to access the web, video and mobile media programs of Creative Cloud too.

Adobe’s main argument for subscriptions is that there are low entry costs and smallish regular monthly fees instead of larger upgrade fees every year or two. Users will always be up to date so any files they exchange will be compatible. Meanwhile, Adobe no longer has to make a huge development effort to upgrade 20 programs simultaneously every 18 months or so. It says this means it will release new features as soon as they’re ready.

On the other hand, most printers will have had Creative Suite for years, so they’ve only been paying upgrade prices. Once Adobe has you locked into subs, what’s to stop it jacking up the price, they might reasonably ask. And if it’s getting guaranteed monthly revenue anyway, is there much incentive to pay expensive developers to keep on thinking up new features?

"If we just sat there and took the money, competition would easily come in and take over. We’d be mad to do that," answers Rupert Knowles, business development manager for digital publishing at Adobe UK. "We’re going to continue to innovate with great features for a variety of different products. Our customers love it, we’ve got 700,000 people signed up as of the last quarter and the uptake has been very good. We’ve got very positive feedback about the new features."

So just what are these customers getting from Creative Cloud for their money? Judging by online comments, the ‘Cloud’ label has confused some people, who think that the programs run on remote offsite servers, or store documents there. Actually they are downloaded and run on your local computers just the same as before. All documents and associated files are also stored locally, though they can optionally synchronise with online storage and collaboration features that are part of the Creative Cloud plans.

Adobe is encouraging social media activity through an online gallery called Behance, and also offers Kuler, a free app for online colour palette sharing and import into Illustrator.

But you don’t need to be connected to the Internet all the time: the admin system checks about once a quarter that you have a valid contract and warns you if it is coming to an end or it has not been able to log on for a while. If you stop paying, all Creative Cloud programs stop opening. You will still have access to all your work files, but if they are in native formats you may not be able to open them. However, someone else with a live contract could open them.

Regarding the various programs within the package, Creative Cloud’s print applications centre on three long-established programs: Illustrator (vector drawing and layout), InDesign (multi-page document layout) and Photoshop (image editing).

InCopy, which allows collaborative multi-user copy editing in conjunction with InDesign, used to be sold separately but has just been added to Creative Cloud. Acrobat XI Pro, the PDF utility, is part of the Creative Cloud package too, although still available as a standalone with perpetual licensing for about £400. Lightroom 5 is part of Creative Cloud Complete too, but also sold separately for £95. This is a high-quality processor of raw digital image formats. Knowles says there are no plans to stop offering Acrobat and Lightroom with perpetual licenses.

The Creative Cloud Complete single-user membership plan gives you all the programs, most online services and 20GB of Cloud storage for £37.50 per month plus VAT, providing you commit to a year’s contract. It’s £56.26 without the annual contract. You can subscribe to a single application, such as Photoshop for £14.64 per month plus VAT, with no yearly commitment. However, for more than two applications you may as well go for a Complete plan.

There are also multi-seat Team plans at £53.20 plus VAT per seat per month. This adds 100GB of cloud storage, full access to online services, centralised billing, centralised deployment tools, and two Expert Services calls per seat. For 100 seats or more there are Enterprise plans, with prices on application.

Introductory offers drop all the plan prices considerably for existing Creative Suite users, but only for the first year. For instance the Creative Cloud Complete single user plan would cost a CS6 user £168 for the first year and £450 every year after that.

So, does Creative Cloud cost more or less than Creative Suite? If you can still find CS6, it costs about £1,150 for the Design Standard Suite with Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Acrobat Pro (previously £298 as an upgrade from CS5.5), or about £2,400 for the full Master Collection (previously £575 as an upgrade). Over time, then, the Creative Cloud Complete package will cost a little more than upgrading an existing Master Suite every 18 months or so, but significantly more than upgrading CS6 Design Standard.

In short, whether the switch will be a good thing for print depends on who you are. "I think it’s a really positive thing," says Paul Warren, consultant at Real Ripple Media, a Hemel Hempstead-based marketing and design agency for print. "The Creative Suite was a lot of money for a small business to have to purchase outright. This way the software is always up-to-date and you don’t have to reinstall the whole thing every year or so."

Warren likes the access to the whole suite too. "There’s a job we’ve been asked to do that involves video. Before now we wouldn’t have taken it on because we didn’t have the software, but as we’ve got it anyway we decided to give it a go."

Michael Burman is less convinced. He’s managing director of FE Burman in south-east London, originally a magazine repro house that’s evolved into digital print services. "If I was a one-off user, like a student or a fashion designer, then it makes sense," he feels. "But if you’ve already got Creative Suite, that’s different. We may or may not choose to upgrade depending on whether or not it’s worth having or whether everyone else we work with is using it.

 "At present we equip two or three Macs in our studio with the latest software, and the rest we only upgrade if we have to. But this effectively means I’ve now lost the choice, I’ve lost control, and that’s never a good place to be. But we’re presented with a fait accompli aren’t we?"

For those unimpressed with the deal they’re now being forced to take, there is, though, hope for a better one. "It ought to give rise to some competition to Adobe," Burman comforts himself. Whether they’ll be able to offer as strong a package and, crucially, at a more affordable rate, still of course remains to be seen.  


 

ALTERNATIVES

There is no direct alternative to Creative Cloud that covers the whole range from print to web to video to mobiles, or offers the same degree of integration. Individual programs do have direct competitors though. There are plenty of Windows graphics programs, though few are suitable for professional use. Credible alternatives for Mac are rarer. Here are the main print-related alternatives.

CorelDraw Graphics Suite X6    
Price: £430

A Windows-only suite, with the main programs being Draw (an Illustrator alternative, popular with sign designers) and Photo-Paint (a decent Photoshop alternative). Corel offers a £143.53 annual subscription model similar to Adobe’s, except it’s not compulsory and you can still buy outright.

QuarkXPress 9    
Price: £715 (upgrade: £280)

The other main professional layout program. It’s as good as InDesign, except for third-party variable data plug-in support. Available for Mac or Windows with perpetual licensing. About to be updated to version X.

GNU Image Manipulation Program (Gimp)    
Price: free

Open source image editing for Mac, Linux and Windows. It has a good feature set and is a decent alternative to Photoshop, but is harder to install and learn. One version emulates Photoshop’s user interface.

Pixelmator 2    
Price: £10.49

A very low cost but usable Mac-only image editor. Similar retouching features to Photoshop including layers, though lacking the most sophisticated features, or plug-ins.


 

WHAT’S NEW FOR PRINTERS?

Simon Eccles has been using and reviewing Adobe’s print programs since the 1980s. Here he tries out the new features within the Creative Cloud versions.

Photoshop

The primary image editing program worldwide, Photoshop was first released in 1990 and this Creative Cloud version is in effect version 14. There’s a decent number of new or improved features, but nothing revolutionary. It’s equivalent to the previous CS6 Extended version, which added 3D object painting (improved for Creative Cloud), CAD and video frame import/export.

The new Camera Shake Reduction, a clever trajectory analysis tool with sharpening, prompted online scoffing that real photographers use tripods.

I tried it on images with different degrees of shake and some showed real improvement, though probably not enough for professional use.

The Smart Sharpen tool has been replaced with new code that lets you control detail without increasing noise. My tests showed small quality improvements over CS6.

Intelligent Upsampling aims to improve the quality and detail of images when you increase resolution, for large-format print work in particular. I tried it at 200% and 300%. Compared to my CS6 upsampling, there’s marginally better detail and less noise.

Type handling is also improved, with anti-aliasing previews and saveable styles. Less excitingly, you can now create round-cornered rectangles and select multiple paths.

The Camera Raw digital camera file converter has a revised user interface, new automatic straightening/perspective options and an improved Healing Brush. It all works well, although Lightroom 5 (also part of Creative Cloud) makes a better job of noise control and global enhancements.

The Mercury graphics engine introduced in CS6 is now extended to speed up Blur and Liquify effects processing.

InDesign

Now almost 14 years old, InDesign has won the lion’s share of the layout market from its chief competitor QuarkXPress. It’s favoured by developers of variable data plug-ins for digital printing (such as XMPie and Kodak Darwin), but InDesign itself only has simple mail-merging and can’t output Adobe’s own PDF/VT variable data format directly.

New Creative Cloud features include a tweaked graphical user interface that resembles Illustrator. Beneath the bonnet, it now has full 64-bit support for faster performance, and higher resolution when used with Apple’s Retina displays.

Font selection gains new search features. Illustrator also gets these, but only InDesign lets you mark favourites then display just those in your font list. Vector QR codes (2D barcodes) can now be generated internally.

Illustrator

The oldest program in Adobe’s stable, Illustrator was introduced in 1986 and this is version 17. A print-friendly new feature is the ability to package documents, fonts and images for service bureaux, the same as InDesign.

In graphics, TouchType is a new ability to manipulate individual type characters without converting to outlines and ungrouping them.

Vector effects brushes can now paint with raster images, so you can create a brush from a sampled photo.

Acrobat XI

Although part of the Creative Cloud rental package, you can still buy Acrobat XI Pro separately with a perpetual license (for £400). This is the core PDF creation and editing tool from Adobe. There are no new features with Creative Cloud so far.

File formats

All the print programs can output PDF files plus appropriate non-proprietary formats (such as EPS, TIFF, BMP, PNG or JPEG) that can usually be edited by third-party programs. However, one reason printers buy into Adobe’s upgrade cycle is that its native file formats are often changed, so older versions might not open the latest customer files. So I checked out any changes in the Creative Cloud set.

Illustrator Creative Cloud can output all previous formats back to Illustrator 3, as well as EPS and PDF. There’s a new Illustrator 17 format, but I found Illustrator CS6 and CS5.5 can open it.

InDesign outputs native IDD files plus PDF, EPS, EPUB and some others. Its ‘CS7’ native files cannot be opened by CS6 or earlier. However it can save native IDML files that older versions, back to CS4, can open.

Photoshop handles a wide range of standard image formats and native PSD files. There’s no change to these in the Creative Cloud version. Likewise, all my CS6 plug-ins work with Creative Cloud.

Typekit fonts

Adobe also offers cloud fonts through Typekit, an online shop for about 700 web-based fonts, with sophisticated previewing. There are several annual subscription plans based on online viewings. Adobe’s servers automatically supply browser-friendly font formats directly to websites.

This won’t work for print files, so in August, Adobe announced that in future Typekit or Creative Cloud users will be able to download standard outline fonts onto their desktops.

The licence allows you to embed fonts in PDF files plus ePub files and Adobe Digital Publishing Suite apps, but not as separate fonts packaged with layout files such as InDesign or QuarkXPress. Service bureaux can however access them through their own Creative Cloud or Typekit subscriptions.

If you cancel your subscription, you won’t be able to access Typekit fonts on your system. However, all the fonts are available for normal outright purchase.

Conclusion

Creative Cloud subscription prices are not too onerous, providing Adobe resists the temptation to jack them up. But remember you’ll have to pay every month, possibly for decades. It adds up, especially when you need multiple seats.

More worrying is the prospect that Adobe is running out of ideas for its venerable print programs: Photoshop has reasonable improvements but those in InDesign and Illustrator are so sparse that they would barely justify a normal upgrade charge. Let’s hope Adobe keeps its promise to issue regular new features for its print programs and not just for cross-media apps.


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