Back when Adobe launched its subscription software program during CS 5.5, I was excited to see that a company or individual could essentially rent the software at a fraction of the actual buying price. That means short projects or off-and-on necessity could make it possible for you to pay for just the time you use the program rather than having to drop hundreds of dollars for something you might use for a few months, or even just a year.

Adobe releases its Creative Suite products about once a year, which means costly upgrades and months of being behind the curve for small businesses without the immediate budget available to keep its systems updated with the latest software. While programs such as Photoshop are arguably useful for several years with no immediate need to upgrade (image files are image files, right?) there can be updates that make work easier, quicker, and less costly in other ways.

So you could either pay full retail price for just the products you need, save some money and purchase them in a suite bundled with other complementary programs, or subscribe to the software you need as you need it.

How It Works

Like any subscription plan, you pay only for the time you actually need the software. If you prefer to go month to month rather than a yearly commitment, you stand to spend more on the software monthly but less in the long run.

All you need to do is purchase a subscription on either a monthly or yearly basis to either individual programs (starting at $19.99/month) or the entire master collection via Creative Cloud (starting at $49.99/month).

Once you’ve subscribed, you have access to both Windows and OS X versions of the Adobe Creative Suite software. All you need to do at that point is load the program, sign in, and start using it as you would if you had bought it outright.

What Are the Advantages?

By subscribing, you’re getting access to the exact same software you would be able to use when purchasing the full version at the retail price. The only difference is that you are paying repeatedly for this software, making it a greater long-term investment should you wish to use the software for an extended period of time.

That said, when you’re paying about $50 per month for a software package that would run you $2,600 for retail, the advantage is clear. Add to that the fact that updates are free, and the value of the deal only increases from there.

Cost Effectiveness
It would take 52 months for your monthly subscription to overlap a single retail purchase of the master collection, if you opt to make yearly commitments. On a month-to-month basis, a subscription to Creative Cloud would exceed the cost of ownership in just over 32 months. Keep in mind that your retail purchase coversĀ just the cost of the versions of the software released that year, and you’re not benefiting from free upgrades, just minor updates.

If you happen to be a student or teacher, the cost of a monthly plan drops to $29.99 per month for access to the entire Creative Suite. Current customers can also take advantage of the price drop.

Only Pay For What You Need
Let’s say you’re just interested in Photoshop Extended. You could buy Photoshop Extended CS6 outright for $999 or rent it at a cost starting at $19.99/month. That means you’ll need to use the software for about 50 months to exceed the cost of retail. Even if you go month to month, you’re still benefiting from about two years of use before the investment fails to pay for itself.

Tax Deductions
Taxes are also a consideration for media professionals, and it’s much easier (at least in the US) to write off subscription services than retail purchases. When you buy something big, you generally have to deal with depreciation and ownership costs and all that nonsense, but a subscription is a recurring cost of operation. Whether or not that plays to your advantage come tax season is between you and your accountant.

Windows and OS X Versions
When you buy Photoshop in a store, you are purchasing either the Windows or OS X version of the software. While you might be able to talk an Adobe rep into switching the license from one platform to another, the ease of transition between the two platforms is much greater when you can simply download the new version and go.

Two Computers on One License
This may be an advantage shared with retail purchases, but being able to install a single program on both a Mac and a Windows-based PC on a single price is a big deal. I ran into this problem a lot while working at a studio. We had a Windows license for a product, but not an OS X one, which made it difficult for me to get things done when I was switching between operating systems.

Disadvantages

Commitment
Subscriptions tend to be pricier (about twice as much) if you don’t go for the yearly commitment. Breaking that commitment comes at a cost, and even though you may be saving money in the short run, you could be losing some in the long term.

It’s a lot like taking the big discount on a mobile phone at the cost of signing a commitment with the carrier. Sure, you’re saving a boatload on the device, but you lose the ability to switch carriers without incurring a fee.

Business Budgetary Concerns
While you don’t actually own software you buy in any case, subscribing to your software means having to shell out money again and again. If you live on the edge in terms of finances, the $50 monthly fee you’ve committed to could be seen as more of a repetitive cost than it really is. Some companies and departments within those companies work on a scheduled budget. You have to account for your costs up front, and make purchases when the window is available to you. That makes subscription services such as these a difficult choice, especially among large teams.

Adobe offers some bulk discounts for medium and large businesses. These discounts may not translate to the subscription service.

Final Thoughts

I’m currently working on a creative project with a group of folks who are working off a tight budget. While we scrimp and save on software and hardware as much as we can, sometimes it helps to have the biggest and best software at your disposal to get the job done right. Two members of our team have opted to sign up for Creative Cloud and are taking advantage of all the tools they need to get their end of the project done.

This means that instead of starting the project at a cost in the thousands, we’re starting it for about a hundred. Should the project fizzle and die, no one on the team is out a significant investment on software they no longer need.

In my mind, Adobe is countering piracy in exactly the right way with this one. By making its software available at a fraction of the cost, it’s making it hard not to consider its software a viable option.