Adobe’s Slow Decay

The problem with Adobe is not any single decision it has made. It is the company’s longer track record, which suggests a genuine lack of respect for non-enterprise users. They’re allowing things to rot.

By Ernie Smith

The answer to all of Adobe’s problems is literally right there.

It’s clearly visible in the business models of Blackmagic Design and Affinity. It can be seen in iPad-centric apps like Procreate. And the problem Adobe faces is not AI, nor a policy change that seems to enforce AI (that they have now decided to update and clarify). The AI thing is best seen as a pressure-relief valve for a company that has been building up grievances left and right for at least the past 15 years.

Here’s the real problem: It’s that Adobe, despite making the Kleenex of image-editing software, thinks that its real customer base is massive corporations that sign six-figure or seven-figure contracts with the company. And unfortunately for all of us, it doesn’t correctly scale down its business model for companies that don’t sign those massive contracts.

And it’s starting to cause some serious reputational damage that may be difficult to fix.

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This can best be seen by something the art-focused YouTuber Brad Colbow said in a clip he published yesterday. Colbow was quick to admit that the policy changes were largely a nothingburger (I mostly agree), but rather suggested the context in which they hit was what left scars. Adobe had a whole community of creatives who signed up to make content for Adobe Stock—only to have the whole model change from under them in favor of Firefly, a service that is clearly being built to optimize the production needs of large companies. (Seeing a theme?) That, Colbow said, hurt the Adobe superfans, the people who made content for Adobe’s services, but who now found themselves making next to nothing.

“It would be like a farmer selling food to the local grocery store, only to find out that the store changed their rules to say, if they cooked the farmer's food before selling it, they only had to pay them pennies on the dollar,” he said in his clip.

The result: The controversial new terms hit in that context, and that’s why they received an unfair read from average users.

It’s hard to see how Adobe, a company built around the needs of creative professionals, resolves that sort of criticism, given that it’s coming from a guy who literally made his career promoting the virtues of creative software. The house of Adobe has signs of dry rot, and we are now seeing the symptoms. The next thing to go might be the foundation.

Let’s assume Adobe wants to take the long way back here and win back over the creative customer. There are lots of ways to solve this sort of issue, of which the pledged updated terms are just a start. One is just to accept that you are a company that is built for small businesses and scale accordingly. That’s what Affinity did, and that’s also what its recent acquirer Canva does. Procreate also does this.

Another, more interesting model involves removing all but the highest-end professional features from your product and providing it for free to the public with some caveats, while also offering a degree of vertical integration by also selling high-margin hardware. Blackmagic Design does this with DaVinci Resolve, and as a result, YouTubers far and wide sing the praises of this tool that they don’t even need to spend money on. It’s a longer game—perhaps some of those YouTubers become more successful or move into more serious production settings—but it’s one that pays dividends when an entire production studio buys a fleet of Resolve-related hardware and software.

Adobe’s great innovation, on the other hand, is the $60 monthly software bill that’s secretly a yearly software bill. (For businesses, rather than individuals, it’s a $90 bill.) They charge everyone who wants access to Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign that much. Oh, they offer a photo-focused suite that’s cheaper—$19.99 per month for Lightroom and Photoshop—but they have clearly shaped their model around the idea that if you want to do traditional print design, you have to commit to a $60 bill that you can’t cancel early without paying a giant fee.

I’ve written about this many times before, most recently when Canva bought Affinity. It’s not new. But to me, Adobe’s problems with upset consumers start and end with the fact that it charges more for its tools and takes more from its users than many feel these kinds of tools should take. And instead of building for the needs of creatives, it’s building for the people who sign the checks.

The second the bizdev teams started calling the shots, it was all over.

To me, I think there is a firewall of trust between product and business model that needs to be maintained, and Adobe has failed to do so. It’s not that Adobe necessarily made a mistake with its terms of service. It’s that goodwill around Adobe was so low that a modest terms change was nearly enough to topple the whole damn thing over. Adobe needs to get over its focus on B2B and realize that it is a B2C company whether it likes it or not, and price and focus accordingly. Cheap education pricing will not win over the next generation of creatives forever.

Looking more broadly, I think a lot about the other companies that announced AI things recently, and how most of them also suffered second-degree burns from jumping into an inferno. Microsoft and Google have shown weaknesses in their respective armors that were previously unthinkable. Companies as divergent as Zoom and Bumble have suggested bizarre directions for AI that sound so far away from reason that, honestly, what’s the point of even letting them back at the big kid’s table?

But yesterday, I found a company get it right in the most unexpected of places: Apple. The team in Cupertino could have fumbled the ball around AI at WWDC, much like Microsoft and Google did. But instead, Apple chose to lead with guardrails. All that talk about privacy that Apple stuffs into its presentations as a way to explain why you can’t upgrade your own SSD? It actually made sense here.

Admittedly, I need to actually try the tools Apple is selling, but it seems to me that, if nothing else, they actually thought about who was going to actually be using this stuff at the end of the day—80-year-old grandmothers, 14-year-old Tetris legends, and everyone in-between.

Again, this is yet another example of the answer being right there: Adobe has partnered with Apple since its absolute beginnings as a company. It could have looked at what Apple was doing in terms of being a company that courts consumers and businesses and embraced that. But it did not.

The misplaced focus that leads a CEO to suggest that digital twins make sense in every single meeting? Sometimes, it’s baked into the business models, and sometimes it has been for well over a decade. And as consumers realize how raw a deal they’re getting, those models are in serious danger of tipping over.

It may not be FOSS or an upstart that makes the final push. It may just be the weight of hubris that knocks it down.

Hubris-free links

My favorite random fact to emerge from the internet of late: before becoming one of the best metal vocalists around, System of a Down lead singer Serj Tankian launched a successful company making MS-DOS-based accounting software for the jewelry industry, only giving up the company because it was getting in the way of his music ambitions. He wrote about in his new memoir, and it’s also brought up in this Stereogum interview.

Blue Scuti

He can’t believe he gets the chance to destroy Logan Paul.

Speaking of 14-year-old Tetris legends, Blue Scuti was in the news over the weekend for kicking Logan Paul’s ass at Tetris. The video is here, but I just want to share this screenshot of the Tetris superstar realizing that this is now his life.

I heard from David Mirsky this morning—as in the Mirsky of Mirsky’s Worst of the Web, one of the very first things I wrote about in Tedium back in 2015. He has a new YouTube channel featuring AI-driven music compositions built around his songwriting—including an amusing ballad about typography.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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