is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Earlier today I went to Adobe’s Creative Cloud 2014 event, which they billed as their biggest single day of product announcements ever. I was invited based on my friendliness with the Behance team, who are now a part of Adobe. (Full disclosure: for some months now I’ve been working with that team on some exploratory product ideas.)
The presentation began with updates and improvements to Adobe’s workhorse desktop apps, particularly Premiere and Photoshop. There was a lot of what you’d expect in terms of simplified workflows and computationally powerful new tools for creative imaging. This included new methods for isolating complex images from complex backgrounds (a problem that the company seems habitually preoccupied with; I feel like I’ve been watching demos of tools that do this same task for at least a decade) and working with three-dimensional objects in two-dimensional design environments.
It was technologically impressive stuff, but it left me somewhat underwhelmed—better iterations of existing tools is what Adobe has been doing for years. Thankfully, I was much more taken with the second half of the presentation, when the company announced several new mobile, cloud computing and, most surprisingly, hardware initiatives.
I did my fair share of grousing when Adobe switched from a boxed software model to a cloud services model, but in retrospect I have to respect the shift in strategy. The fact that they pulled off such a transition is no mean feat. Not only did they convert over two million milestone customers into paid monthly subscribers, but in doing so, it’s now clear, they opened up a new front for their creative tools, one that was frankly impossible without first moving to a cloud-based paradigm.
The products they announced today—their precision drafting app Adobe Line, their expressive drawing app Adobe Sketch, and mobile versions of Lightroom and Photoshop—are all intimately tied into their Creative Cloud service. They function well enough on their own, but they were clearly brought into the world as network-aware applications that are much richer when connected.
This new stripe of Adobe software is made possible by the company’s shift away from building value in shipped software and towards building value in the cloud. Which is to say, Adobe no longer has to make money from its monolithic software packages like Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, because people are no longer paying for those packages. Instead, they’re paying for Creative Cloud.
This still means that Adobe has to build software that people fundamentally want, of course. But it also means that they no longer have to concentrate their efforts solely on their core franchises. Any software that hooks into Creative Cloud and makes it more valuable for subscribers is a worthwhile effort. So it’s possible that we could see a lot more apps like Sketch and Line, which are sleeker, purpose-built concepts free of the cruft that has weighed down Adobe’s big applications for so long. And it’s also why even Ink and Slide, the company’s unexpected pressure-sensitive stylus and weirdly useful ruler, are both intimately hooked into Creative Cloud.
The best example of this was also today’s most muted announcement: Adobe’s Creative SDK will allow third-party developers to build new iOS apps that hook into Creative Cloud, and theoretically benefit from access to that huge market of pre-qualified consumers of design tools. Only a select few (as yet unidentified) developers have been given access to the SDK, but if the company properly nourishes this initiative, it could eventually outstrip today’s other announcements in importance.
A properly implemented third-party developer ecosystem could mean that the next Photoshop or Illustrator competitor won’t have to fight against the full might of Adobe in order to gain mass acceptance. Rather, with access to Creative Cloud’s millions of pre-qualified customers of creative tools, they could compete against Adobe’s marquee apps on a feature-by-feature basis. So long as they’re driving more subscriptions, Adobe benefits regardless.
It’s too early to say so definitively, but this is starting to feel like a new and different kind of Adobe. In the past, I’ve been ambivalent about their outsized domination of our creative tools, and I’m an unalloyed advocate of challengers to their throne like Bohemian Coding’s Sketch. But I’m starting to see now that Adobe has a unique opportunity to transform the creative process from a software-enabled workflow to a cloud-based activity. If done properly, there will be enormous implications for how we think about making and designing things, and even for who makes and design things.+