Free Is The New Normal

It started in 2013. Free is the new normal. Google announced free photo editing. Apple announced free operating systems and iWork applications and Aperture may be next. What the hell will Adobe do?

The Apple Experience

You could say that this has been coming since before Steve Jobs passed away. He often spoke of Apple’s focus on the user experience. Tim Cook repeated the same sentiment on Apple’s earnings call for Q3, 2013.

We are unique position of having world class hardware, software and service skills under one roof, which enables us to provide an unparalleled user experience to hundreds and millions of customers.

What does this have to do with Aperture vs Lightroom? It highlights a key philosophical difference among the two corporations and the value they offer to their customers. Apple can develop an integrated hardware and software solution. Adobe cannot. That means Apple doesn’t have to compete on Adobe’s terms, even if Adobe has a larger marketshare in the overall digital asset management market. Quite honestly, Apple doesn’t care to look at this market in the same way as Adobe.

Naysayers have accused Apple of abandoning Aperture and the professional market over the last couple of years. We’ve since learned that Steve Jobs seriously considered that prospect, too. However, there are also some chinks in the armor of that argument today.

  • Aperture has seen more upgrades than Lightroom in the same period of time – and Aperture upgrades were free.
  • The new Mac Pro is about to throw the existing power workstation market into some serious chaos.
  • Apple upgraded its other two professional apps to new major versions.
  • Aperture was prominently featured in the advertising last year for the new MacBook Pro with Retina display and again at the recent product announcement.

Why Free Is The New Normal, And Not Just For Apple

Yesterday, Google made a major announcement about enhancements to Google+. The largest part of those announcements were about photography products. Other than Nik Software, which is $149 for the complete collection to new users, everything Google announced is free to users of its service. Considering that Google gave away thousands of copies of Nik Software at Photoshop World in Las Vegas a couple of months ago, I would almost call it free. In fact, I was astonished that Google didn’t announce Nik Software as a free product yesterday.

Apple recently let Aperture 3.5 slip out for free last week. If you had a trial version of Aperture – something available on CD from a long time ago, but still available for download if you search it out – the App Store recognized it and automatically upgraded you to a fully licensed version of Aperture 3.5. At first, I thought this was a glitch that Apple would correct, but I’ve since learned that it wasn’t a mistake. Although you can still buy Aperture 3.5 for $79 on the App Store, it’s also quite possible to get it for free now and that’s OK with Apple.

Both Apple and Google understand the power of photography. Not just for professionals and advanced hobbyists, but for everyone. There is tremendous opportunity in the care and feeding of those billions of photographs being churned out by iPhones, Androids and DSLRs.

Apple and Google both seem to understand that it’s in their best interest to win the hearts and minds of those happy snappers. That’s because their revenue streams aren’t limited to selling widgets. They’re selling an experience and lifestyle – perhaps even a cult.

There Is No Cult For Adobe

Adobe has some great products. Sadly, the news just keeps going in the wrong direction for them. While directing its user base to a subscription service in the Creative Cloud, it’s facing a tremendous security breach of roughly 38 Million customer accounts. That affects me directly. As a result, I had to change much of my information after the breach allowed some nefarious snot to hijack my web site domains and re-direct them to spam sites. Adobe didn’t even realize that it was hacked. A security consultant discovered the information and had to let Adobe now. We’re still learning more about the extent of the breach, including the loss of source code that may yet impact Adobe and its customers.

Even without that catastrophe, Adobe rolled out its Creative Cloud suite without a suitable answer for part of its customer base – photographers. Fortunately, it since announced special pricing for users who only want Photoshop and Lightroom. The good news is that pricing will last for the foreseeable future. The bad news is that you only get it if you act before the end of this year, and you were already an Adobe customer who had Photoshop CS3 or newer version of the software.

That deal is someone confusing for me. I’m paying for the entire Creative Cloud suite this year, and I have a free year added as a Photoshop World attendee.  That’s great, but what happens after that? Can I drop down to the special pricing for just Photoshop and Lightroom if I want to do so later, or am I excluded because I didn’t get the deal this year? Suffice it to say that I’m confused by Adobe’s pricing strategies.

Clearly, Adobe cannot compete by giving away its software for free. It isn’t playing in the same market as Apple and Google. Adobe sells software widgets, not user experiences. There is no doubt that Apple and Google will eat some of Adobe’s lunch.

That’s not good for Adobe, either. It’s already suffering from a decline of profit margin and operating margin from Q3, 2012. Looking at Adobe’s cash flow, there’s a lot of red in that ledger and it’s getting deeper into the wrong direction.

Will Apple or Google buy out Adobe? I don’t think that either one needs to do that right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see key developers flee Adobe for either of those giants. The business of photography is shifting away from professionals and advanced enthusiast to the person with a decent smartphone camera who wants to tap a few buttons to process the images. Those folks look at photographer differently than most of us do, and they want their solutions for free. They pay in other ways.

That’s why free is the new normal.



  1. indipix says

    i dont think ApX will be free. its still listed as a pro app. they has to make iphoto free to keep the crowd away from picasa, etc. and at the full price Apperture is still steal, and will keep it that way to attract more users and put presurre on adobe.

    • says

      You may well be right that Aperture and the other Apple Pro software programs continue to have a fee. There are no guarantees here. I’m just seeing a trend toward free software from technology companies who have a different view on their customer and revenue needs than pricing software widgets. When Apple keeps dropping the price of Aperture. It started around $500 and now it sells for $79. It’s not a huge contributor to Apple’s overall revenue. The goodwill gesture of giving it away may generate more revenue than continuing to sell it. Just a thought.

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