OPINION: How Adobe’s Misguided Subscription Model Reinforces Global Inequality

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The move away from one-time purchases to monthly subscriptions (known as the “Creative Cloud”) has hindered creative opportunity for countless users across the world.
Mikaela Shannon

Ask anyone in the creative industry and they will tell you that the leading software comes from Adobe Inc. Their programs have become so ubiquitous with contemporary digital arts that the word “photoshopping”––a verb which references their famous photo retouching application, Photoshop––has become part of the lexicon. It almost goes without saying that their graphics software is considered unparalleled in quality, and I myself have grown up loving their range of applications and the seemingly endless artistic possibilities they afford.

As with any company, Adobe is understandably looking to make money and stay at the top of the game for as long as possible. However, in certain circles, there is also an unspoken attitude that Adobe’s go-to status amounts to somewhat of a monopoly over the creative industry.

We all know that great power comes with great responsibility, but I wonder if Adobe has really earned their seemingly untarnished reputation: Unlike other massive tech companies who have all been met with numerous disparaging headlines, whether from Google to Windows to Amazon, this company has managed to avoid the harsh reckonings of such a spotlight. And yet this absence of scrutiny is not due to a lack of questionable business decisions on their part.

Most notably, Adobe has tried to preemptively eliminate their competition by buying them out––specifically in a 2011 move that forced the FTC to intervene. Oddly, Adobe has managed to avoid appropriate critique given that the story was not championed by many (if any) major news organizations. Ask the average person and they have almost certainly never heard of any such controversy, despite likely having the latest version of Adobe Flash Player installed on their laptop.

So the real question is how has this unchallenged position affected their consumers?

In 2013, the company was well aware of its premiere status when it made a very controversial decision amongst their user-base: Adobe switched to a subscription-based model. Prior to the change, users regularly purchased application in bundles to be uploaded into harddrives. Any updates were made available through an internet connection, which Adobe eventually realized could be used to ensure that the software had indeed been legally purchased. After 30 years in business, this premise was what Adobe users had come to expect, so there was rightful outcry when Adobe announced their monumental change.

However, because Adobe had come to dominate the creative industry, the backlash could simply ignored. This is still true today, five years after the new dynamic was introduced, despite sometimes drastic hikes to the monthly fee. (At present, you can pay $20USD/month for a single app, or $52USD/month for all apps excluding Adobe Stock.)

To their credit, subscription services seemingly unavoidable these days and many new companies have revolutionized their industries through this model. But the key difference is that hugely successful giants such as Spotify and Netflix are companies that provide professional, pre-made content for the sake of entertainment. Conversely, Adobe only provides software, or the gateway to creation, to businesses across the creative industry.

It is not as though a graphic design firm, whose entire staff will have spent thousands of dollars in schooling to become expertly familiar with this software, is going to have any alternative than to comply with Adobe’s decisions. This company knows that we are dependant and, unfortunately, they know that they can exploit that reliance.

I am not the first person to write about Adobe’s subscription controversy, so I won’t delve any further into the details of the switch. Instead, I’d like to point out a key issue that has gone virtually unaddressed in all of this uproar: Adobe subscriptions are not available worldwide.

In fact, prominent countries such as Iceland, Nigeria, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Jamaica lack any access through their website. While it is understandable that licensing agreements may be hindered by particular governments, Adobe doesn’t seem to be picking and choosing its licensing choices based on the ethics of a country’s governance.

Instead, Adobe would probably argue that their lack of availability issue of demand, but even that reasoning doesn’t acknowledge Adobe’s role in widening the disparity between “developed” and “undeveloped” nations. Even with a quick glance over the unsupported countries, it is pretty obvious that a lot of these countries are in Africa; a continent which should no longer be ignored given its immense predicted growth.

At the end of the day, the issue is this: Prior to Creative Cloud, Adobe users had much better access to these valuable applications, regardless of where they live. I have seen firsthand that these technological barriers are hindering artistic entrepreneurship and opportunity in these countries, particularly for creative teams.

Going forward, I would like to see Adobe spearhead some initiatives to counterbalance this discrepancy. How is the rest of the creative world supposed to catch up when they don’t have access to the same tools? The answer is that they can’t, and that is deeply disturbing.

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