The Day Adobe Didn’t Give Away Anything

Adobe LogoYesterday, Adobe announced that they were shutting down the authenticate servers on the apps in their Creative Suite 2 (CS2) line of products as well as some additional legacy applications. However, to ensure that users of CS2, which was released in 2005, could continue using their applications, Adobe provided downloadable versions of the relevant applications that required only a one-time key to unlock, a key that was provided free to all existing customers.

However, that wasn’t the message the Internet got.

Spurned on by various threads on Reddit, many popular blogs and even some main stream media sites began to report that Adobe was making CS2 and other apps from that time freely available to all.

As Adobe began to clarify the misunderstanding the corrections started to roll out, but by then the damage had been done and there was a virtual feeding frenzy of people trying to claim their free copy of Adobe’s 8-year-old applications. Unfortunately for them, no such free offer exists, leading Adobe to caution that the offer is only for licensed users and that Adobe will verify all users installing CS2.

But all of this belies a bigger question, should Adobe, or other software companies, make older versions of their applications available for free as a way to increase legitimate usage of their work?

There are pretty convincing arguments both for and against it but, in Adobe’s case, no matter how popular a decision it would have been, it likely doesn’t make sense to offer CS2, or other early versions of their software, for free.

The Case for Free Software

The argument in favor of giving away old software is pretty clear, especially for Adobe. The company has a well-known problem with piracy, with one survey reporting that some 60% of all Photoshop users are pirates even among photographers.

Adobe software, by most standards, is expensive and professionally-targeted software that, in many cases, is also popular among a more casual audience. Though less-expensive and free alternatives exist to nearly all Adobe apps, the brand recognition and familiarity of Adobe’s products drive people to seek out illegal copies even when free or cheap alternatives might be good enough for what they want to do.

Providing older versions of the established apps could blunt this greatly. Giving an official Adobe alternative to both piracy and to cheaper applications out there.

Furthermore, the software involved in the misunderstanding, CS2, is greatly out of date. The latest version is CS6 and the Mac versions of CS2 apps wont even run on modern systems as they are PowerPC apps and Mac moved to Intel chips in 2006. Even some of the Windows apps would require extra software to run in Windows 7 or 8.

Anyone who is able to pay almost certainly would step up to the latest editions. In the end, it’s a way to turn people away from piracy and at least get them to sign up for an Adobe account, which can be the first step to future purchases and bringing them in as a paying customer down the road.

The Problem with Free Software

But while releasing software for free, even very dated software, certainly would be a public relations boon and a good way to court would-be pirates into the Adobe fold, it comes with a slew of serious problems.

First, adobe has already done a great deal court pirates. First, it already offers inexpensive versions of some of its applications, namely its Elements line of products. While still expensive compared to alternatives, $99 for Photoshop Elements, they are significantly cheaper than the full versions of the same apps, Photoshop starts at $1,299 for the full version, though the Elements applications perform many of the same important functions.

Beyond that, Adobe has also launched Creative Cloud, a monthly plan that gives users access to all of Adobe’s applications, providing a relatively inexpensive way to legitimately use nearly every application Adobe makes. This offer includes a discount for users of previous versions of Adobe software.

These efforts, along with special student and teacher pricing, have been pretty major steps in making Adobe’s products easier to purchase and afford. Releasing old versions of existing applications for free could run counter to these strategies and also harm Adobe’s position as a “premium” brand.

Another issue is that releasing software for free is not free to Adobe. While it’s easy to say that they aren’t selling it and wouldn’t lose anything to give it away, Adobe would still have the cost of supporting it. While, undoubtedly, such a release would come with claims that there is no support, that’s not a practical position for Adobe as there could be issues if the software caused harm to users’ PCs, including security issues, and a bad user experience could defeat the entire purpose of the experiment.

In short, if Adobe is going to release software such as CS2 for free, it’s going to have to support it to at least some degree and that comes with an expense that may be difficult to justify.

However, perhaps the biggest problem is that a free software offering would reach out to to the wrong audience. The Adobe software involved is almost entirely aimed at professional and semi-professional users, in particular companies. The individual and personal market, the groups most likely to seek out the free applications, is not widely targeted.

This may explain why Adobe, despite having a robust anti-piracy section on its site, almost exclusively targets commercial piracy with little emphasis on file sharing or other forms of piracy.

Individuals and individual piracy just aren’t high priorities for the company right now. However, if they released the applications involved for free, it could erode some of their commercial market, all without providing much gain.

Bottom Line

Love or hate Adobe, they seem to have found a strategy that works for them. With over one billion in revenue in the third quarter of 2012, the company seems to be doing well and meeting expectations despite a weak economy.

Though Adobe often takes a great deal of heat for having software that’s too expensive or too difficult to obtain, it’s worked well for them, despite high piracy rates.

That being said, that doesn’t mean that Adobe’s approach is right for everyone. Not only is Adobe software aimed at a more professional audience than most mass market applications, but Adobe has been around since 1982 and has an established brand that, to many, commands a premium. A different company, with different products and different customers may be in a very different situation.

This is why it’s important not just to look at what works for others, but to weigh how you are similar and different to them, giving you a chance to both learn from them and find something unique that works for you.

There’s no one right when it comes to these issues and what has worked for Adobe so far likely won’t work for someone else and, in truth, may not work well at all for Adobe in just a few years.

Times and situations change, that’s a fact of business, doubly so with the Internet.

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