The Rise and Fall of Adobe Inc.
Gather the Crowd, Shout It Aloud: Creative Cloud
For most graphic designers, illustrators, photographers, video editors, or anyone who makes content on a computer, it’s hard to imagine life without the Adobe Creative Cloud. The suite of products produced by Adobe Inc. has made work faster for any digital artist, allowing creative types to edit photography, video, and design with just a few clicks of a mouse or swipes on a tablet. As its suite of products has morphed and expanded over the years, the Adobe Creative Cloud has inarguably become an indispensable collection of software, with its tentacles reaching into most digital artistic fields.
My relationship with the company started in 2002 with Photoshop Elements 2.0, a humble program with a one-time cost of $99. I quickly fell in love with how easy it was to edit photos and create designs, and I soon was posting my work to DeviantArt and participating in “Photoshop Battles” on graphic design forms. I partially owe my career to Adobe, and it’s one of the longest relationships I’ve been in — creative or otherwise — but now our relationship is far past the point of sunshine and rainbow gradients and deep into the “we need to talk” phase.
Prices have risen since the days of a single purchase of a $99 CD-Rom. As Adobe products have multiplied and expanded, so has the total cost of the mounting monthly subscription fees. Photoshop on its own currently costs $9.99 a month for an individual, with most other programs costing upwards of $20.99 a month. Their hot deal is their offer of the entire creative suite for businesses at the low-low price of $79.99 a month. As a generalist graphic designer slash illustrator slash animator, I need all the apps, meaning I would spend $960 a year on average until I die or stop making content. As someone on the side of privilege, I can only think what it would be like to start out in a creative field in the wake of an economic fallout due to a global pandemic and be expected to drop an additional $1,000 a year to afford the basic software for my profession.
Beyond the rising prices, Adobe has made efforts to ensure its users remain stuck within the Adobe universe in perpetuity. Adobe products have also struggled with increasingly large file sizes, bugs, all mostly due to more and more cloud-based integration. Most new features (such as Adobe Fonts) are often an attempt to keep users remaining in Adobe’s closed garden system as opposed to seeking other, better-designed means of working. Adobe has even sent letters to its users threatening to sue them for using older versions of their own software. In one viral moment, one user even reported that they were charged $291 for canceling their Creative Cloud subscription, or in other words, the approximate cost of three copies of Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0. And In 2012, two Adobe products — Adobe Reader and Adobe Flash — were included in a list of the top ten “most hated programs of all time”. It’s been of no matter to Adobe, as their profits have continued to rise as they announce splashy releases at their Adobe MAX conferences with design luminaries such as Imagine Dragons, Jared Leto, and Dave Grohl.
But how did we get here? Aside from the inevitable tendency of capitalism to squash innovation in the enduring pursuit of greed, are there other reasons why and how Adobe has been able to morph into the monopolistic beast that it is today? And is the Creative Cloud always going to be like this? Will I one day die due to a heart attack because of an especially devastating After Effects crash? In order to find the answers about the present, we need to look at the past, and go back into the 1980s…
In 1987, Adobe Systems released Illustrator, a program that would forever alter the course of pen and paper. Its origin story was a humble one: John Warnock, a brilliant computer scientist co-founded Adobe in 1982 after leaving Xerox to invent PostScript, a graphic programming language that was later included in Apple’s Laserwriter (Steve Jobs had even tried to buy the company at the time for $5 million). The first software in the Creative Suite was Illustrator, which John invented for his wife, Marva Warnock. Martha was a graphic designer who, in her own words, “couldn’t ink”. Her graphic design background had an immeasurable influence on him, and he wanted to build a program that would make her job easier. She would present John with the graphic designer’s toolset: rub down text, french curves, the Rapidograph — cumbersome objects that required skill and capital and were only available to those with proper training — and he would find ways to automate them on the computer. Marva’s first request was to digitally produce perfectly rounded corners, as whenever she needed them her Letraset sheet never had the right size and if it did — it had often already been used. She would communicate her parameters to John, he would input them as code, and voila! A perfect rectangle with exact rounded corners would be printed from the computer.
John had now invented a programmatic language that described how to draw the page, replacing the boxy pixelated world of bitmap with beautiful bezier curves. With PostScript, instead of typefaces being rendered as they had with metal type: each font size needing its own separate file, typefaces, and any vector form could be rendered at any size with just a single group of code. Through the development of Illustrator, Adobe was able to translate these codepoints into WYSIWIG tools, two points in a curve could now be formed by a click of the pen, and instantaneously drawing was automated and perfected.
Adobe knew that designers and illustrators would be skeptical of the new computer overlords coming to automate their industry, essentially wiping out the rapidograph in place of the computer. To assuage their worries they evangelized Illustrator through public trade shows, setting up computers across the country and bringing in industry professionals to showcase the brave new world of beziers. Artists such as David Hockney were invited alongside the elite of the New York City publishing: TIME magazine, LIFE, and The New York Times were shown the new dawn of the age of Adobe. They even went as far as to make a promotional video of designer and Adobe employee Luanne Seymour Cohen jumping out of an airplane to show that the leap that they were making wasn’t in fact so scary after all.
What seems like a given to any graphic designer working today was in fact a huge revelation for the industry. What was once a profession whose primary goal was to clean up the roughness, set type perfectly, and draw everything by hand was now instantly “precise, perfect, and adjustable”. The skeptics who had assumed that Adobe would ruin the profession due to this newfound accessibility were of course proven wrong, but its impact could not be overstated.
In 1989, Adobe released Photoshop, an image editing program for photographers that forever altered the course of producing pictures, pushing the uncanny valley forward and distorting beauty standards with a push of the liquefy tool. Photoshop became Adobe's landmark product and is now so ubiquitous that the term Photoshopped is often used to describe any time an image is manipulated. In 1991 they released Premiere, video editing software that is now the industry standard alongside Final Cut Pro and Avid. In 1993, Adobe invented the PDF and released the Adobe Acrobat reader. Any creative industry where they could not build a product themselves they purchased and in 1994 they bought PageMaker, which would later become InDesign (the landmark layout design software for print designers) and in the same year they purchased AfterEffects — the premier tool for motion graphics. In 2003 they purchased the aptly named Cool Edit Pro and renamed it Adobe Audition and added music editing software to the Creative Suite.
In 2005 Adobe conquered their biggest rival Macromedia for a stock swap valued at approximately $3.4 billion, adding Authorware, ColdFusion, Contribute, Captivate, Breeze, Director, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash, FlashPaper, Flex, FreeHand, HomeSite, JRun, and Presenter to their line of products. This was one of Adobe’s first forays into the world of web design, as Dreamweaver was an extraordinary simple HTML editor which replaced Adobe GoLive, a different web design tool that Adobe had purchased in 1999. Of note was Adobe’s purchase of Flash, animation software that at the time dominated the internet with its wild visualizations and interactive wizardry. Flash was beloved by animators and internet weirdos (like me) but despised by many — namely Apple — for a multitude of reasons mostly to do with performance and opacity. Steve Jobs himself even went out of his way in 2010 to write a post titled “Thoughts on Flash” where he waxed poetic about the early days of the two companies and then went on to outline six reasons why Flash was bad, very bad. Adobe couldn’t win against the future of the iPhone, which intentionally didn’t support Flash, and the program was deprecated in 2017 with Adobe announcing it would cease support for Flash by the end of 2020.
Throughout this story of Adobe creating and eating the entire business of visual tools, there was one instance where the U.S. Government stepped in and tried to stop the madness. It involved Illustrator, the simple program John Warnock had built for his wife back in 1987. In 1994 Adobe bought Aldus Corp. a company that sold FreeHand, a direct competitor to Adobe Illustrator. In a rare stroke of intervention, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in and forced Adobe to sell the product back to Altsys and banned them from buying back Freehand or any other similar product for the next decade (1994–2004). Altsys was then bought by Macromedia which in turn was acquired by Adobe in 2005, one year after they were legally allowed to purchase it. Adobe stopped all development on FreeHand, killing the product and only major competing illustration program at the time. In an alternate universe, one where the American government was able to stop giant tech corporations from building monopolies on large swaths of industry, one can see a world where there were many different Adobe-Illustrator-like programs to choose from. Programs that were updated regularly, who listened to their users, and weren’t bogged down by cloud computing charged monthly to your bank account. If you look beyond the Creative Cloud, I think that world exists, and it may not be too far away.
Today, the 300,000 square ft. Adobe offices in San Francisco’s SoMa district include a meditation pod, arts and crafts room, and a music room called Flashback 1982, a reference to the year Adobe was founded. It’s a far cry from John and Marva Warnocks garage and the Adobe creek that ran behind their house which the company was named after. With Illustrator, Photoshop, Indesign, Premiere, and later with the acquisition of Macromedia adding Flash and Dreamweaver to their empire, Adobe solidified its monopoly on the digital creative industry. Through their tactics of infiltrating insiders, convincing them that digital design was the wave of the future, they essentially took over all aspects of the creation in the design profession. With the power of capitalism behind them, Adobe became the standard, as the advent of computers increasingly became the norm in schools, homes, and businesses. The metamorphosis from the slow world of cut and paste to the speedy world of point and click was likely inevitable, Adobe just happened to be the corporation who pushed that world forward.
At the turn of the millennium, John Warnock retired as CEO and was succeeded by Bruce Chizen who had joined Adobe in 1994 as a part of their acquisition of the Aldus Corporation. Chizen tripled Adobe’s revenue and stepped down in 2007 to be succeeded by Shantanu Narayen. Aside from a dip during the 2009 recession where they laid off 1,290 employees, Adobe’s current business strategy has been fruitful. After switching to a subscription-only model in 2013 — effectively hiking up the cost without changing the tools by switching to a month-to-month payment system — the company’s revenue doubled from the years 2013 to 2018, spiking their revenue up from $4 billion in 2013 to over $9 billion in 2018. The change from a single payment to a monthly bill was saliently described by one user as “It’s like they’ve hooked everybody on digital heroin”. Adobe was the industry standard, if you expected to work in any sort of creative industry, you were expected to make the switch (and pay the price).
Adobe hasn’t been successful in eating every aspect of the design industry as notably in 2016 they released Adobe XD, a tool meant for designing web and mobile apps. It was a late entry for Adobe in this field as in 2010 a Dutch company called Bohemian Coding released Sketch which over time became the premier product for digital product design. Sketch was later joined by Figma, which has now also become the industry standard because of its collaborative toolkit. The original suite of Adobe products was not built for this type of work, as opposed to Sketch and Figma which were digital-product-first design tools. Adobe failed to gain footing in designs’ most forward-thinking (in terms of technology) and one of its most theoretically profitable sectors, with most UI and UX designers completely ignoring Adobe XD, as it was a blatant clone of Sketch.
As many Adobe users' perceptions of its products have soured over time (as a quick Twitter search will find), so has the appetite to seek out alternative tools. Thanks to a number of developers who have built a suite of alternatives to the creative suite, designers are no longer fully without agency in their relationship with Adobe. Graphic designer Daniel Calderón maintains a list of these products, one that grows every few months, as developers and designers are seeing the opportunity to build tools that are more affordable, open-source, and diverse in their toolset. I myself now use Affinity Photo in place of Photoshop as it delivers essentially the same tools at a much greater speed with a one-time cost (of $50, half the price of Photoshop Elements 2.0!) as opposed to an exploitative subscription-based model. This is by no means an endorsement of Affinity, which has an entire suite of Adobe replacements, as handing over the reins from one creative corporation to another is not a long-term solution that benefits the design community. It’s hard to imagine what the world would look like without the Creative Suite, and the way it has intertwined in almost every creative type’s life seems essential, but as Ursula Le Guin similarly described capitalism: “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” I don’t know where I would be without the work of John and Martha Warnock, but in a world without Adobe Inc., at the very least I would be saving $79.99 a month, plus fees.