It’s great… Until it isn’t

No, that picture at the top isn’t a map of Covid-19 hotspots. It’s the map of US users affected by this week’s Adobe sign-in outage. This past Wednesday (May 27th) affected users across all of Adobe’s various cloud products were unable to sign into their accounts – locking them out of using any installed Adobe products. But not every user – only those who needed to sign in to enable their applications.

Adobe products, like Creative Cloud, are paid on a monthly or prorated annual basis. You sign in one time to activate the account on that device and you are good to go until renewal time, as long as you stay signed into the cloud license manager application. In theory, you don’t need to be continually connected to the internet for the applications to function. However, once a month Adobe’s servers are pinged and you may be prompted to sign in again. So if Wednesday was your machine’s day to “phone home,” you haven’t used the apps in a while, or if you were signing in after having previously signed out, then your Adobe cloud manager application was unable to connect to the server and activate (or reactive) your software product(s). Just like that, a day of billable time flushed away.

Before you grab the torches and pitchforks, it may be useful to revisit the pros and cons of the various software licensing models.

Subscription

Quite a few companies have adopted the subscription – aka software as a service or SaaS – model. The argument is that you never actually own any software, regardless of the company or the application (read any EULA). Rather, you pay for the right to use it over a specified period of time – monthly, annually, or perpetually. Adobe decided to go all-in on subscription plans, arguing that the upfront costs were cheaper for the user, the plans offered a better ROI with access to many more Adobe products, and that this provided a predictable revenue stream to fuel more frequent product updates.

Generally, these points have been realized and the system works rather well most of the time. Yes, you can argue that over time you pay more for your CC subscription than in the old CS days (assuming you skipped a few CS updates). But if you are an active facility, production company, or independent contractor, then it’s a small monthly business expense, just like your internet or electric bill, which is easily absorbed against the work you are bringing in. The software cost has shifted from cap-ex to op-ex.

That is all true, unless you have no revenue coming in or are merely working with media as a hobby. In addition, once you stop subscribing, all past project files – whether that’s Premiere Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, In Design, etc – can no longer be opened until you renew.

Unfortunately, when you hit a day like Wednesday, all rational arguments go out the window.

The App Store model

If you are a Final Cut Pro X user, then Wednesday might have stirred the urge to say, “I told you so.” I get that. The App Store method of purchasing/installing/updating software works well. You only have to sign in for new purchases, new Mac installations, and occasionally for updates.

However, don’t be smug. Certain applications that Apple sees as a service, like News, occasionally prompt you to sign in with your Apple ID again before you can use that software. This is true even if you haven’t subscribed to any paid magazines or newspapers. In a scenario such as Adobe’s Wednesday outage, I can image that you would be just as locked out. Not necessarily from your creative apps, like FCPX, but rather certain software/services, such as News, iTunes, Music, etc. As someone who uses my iCloud e-mail account quite a lot through web browsers, I can’t count the number of times access has been hampered.

License managers

Similar to the App Store or Adobe Creative Cloud, some companies use license manager software that’s installed onto your machine. This is a common method for plug-in developers, such as FxFactory and Waves. It’s a way of centralizing the installation and authorization of that software.

FxFactory follows the App Store approach and includes purchasing and update features. Others, like Waves and Avid Link, are designed to activate and/or move licenses between machines, based on the company’s stored, online database of serial numbers. You typically do not need to stay online or be signed in unless making changes or updates, or your system has changed in some way, like a new OS installation. These work well, but aren’t bulletproof – as many Media Composer editors can attest.

Activation codes

One of the oldest methods is simply to provide the user with a serial number/activation code. Install the software and activate the license with the supplied code number. If you need to move the software to a different machine, then you will typically have to deactivate that application on the first machine and activate it again on the second machine. You only have to be connected to the company’s servers during these activation times. Some companies also offer offline methods for activation in the event you don’t have internet access.

Seems simple, right? Well, not necessarily. First of all, if you have a lot of software that uses this method, that’s a lot of serial numbers you will have to keep track of. Second, some companies only give you a limited number of times you can deactivate and reactivate the software. If that’s the case, you can’t really move the license back and forth between two machines every other week. If your motherboard dies with the software activated, you are likely going to have to jump through hoops to get the company to deactivate the number on their server in order to be able to activate it again on the repaired machine. That’s because the new motherboard IDs it as a completely different machine. Finally, even some of these companies require you to occasionally sign in or reactivate the software in order for you to continue being able to use it.

Hardware license key

Ah, the “dongle.” When Avid switched to software licensing, many Media Composer editors approached it with the attitude of “from my cold, dead hands.” And so, Avid still maintains hardware licensing for many Avid systems. Likewise, Blackmagic Design has also shipped dongles for DaVinci Resolve and Fusion. iLok devices, common among Pro Tools users, are another variant of this. Dongles, which are actually USB hardware keys, make it simple to move authorization between machines. That’s useful if you maintain a fleet of rental systems. No internet required. Just a USB port.

Unfortunately, dongles are subject to forgetfulness, loss, breakage, theft, and even counterfeiting. A friend reminded me that when Avid Symphony first came out and cost $100K for a system, dongle theft was a very real issue. That’s likely less the case now, because software is so cheap by comparison. I do know of film schools that extended their Media Composer dongles on a USB extension cable and then strung it to the inside of their Mac Pro. Lock the case for viable theft prevention.

Free

The Holy Grail – right? Or so many users believe. It’s the model Blackmagic uses for the standard versions of Resolve and Fusion. Many plug-in developers use the free model on a few plug-ins just to get you interested in their other paid products. Of course, the ease of making Motion Templates for Final Cut Pro X has create a homegrown hobbyist/developer market of free or extremely cheap effects and graphics templates.

Even though some commercial software is free, you are only granted the right to use it, not ownership. Often in exact for user data so that you can be marketed to in the future. As a business plan for a commercial developer, this model is only sustainable because of other revenue, like hardware sales. And in practice, even the Mac App Store model, with its “buy once” policy, is close to free when you own and personally control a number of Macs.

There are pros and cons to all of these models. They all work well until they don’t. When there’s a hiccup, roll with the punches, or contact support if it’s appropriate. With some luck, there will be a speedy resolution and you’ll be back up and running in no time.

©2020 Oliver Peters