Adobe misleads IT price hike inquiry



Note: This artice initially included comments Adobe Australia MD Paul Robson made regarding the research and development costs of producing software. However, Delimiter has determined that there are several possible interpretations of Robson’s comments. Hence, we have removed this section of the article and invite readers to consider the transcript of the executive’s opening statement themselves (PDF).

news Adobe appears to have given a number of misleading and highly contestable answers to key questions posed to the software giant by the Federal Parliament’s inquiry into IT price hikes in the Australian market last week, in a move which builds on questions currently being debated about the company’s future relationship with its customers.

It has long been the case that many of Adobe’s popular products — such as its Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator stand-alone products and its Creative Suite bundle — cost dramatically more when sold in Australia compared with the same products sold globally, even when the products are distributed online with no physical boxed copy. For example, in April 2012, Adobe revealed that locals would pay up to $1,400 more for the exact same software when they buy the new version 6 of its Creative Suite platform compared to residents of the United States, meaning some Australian residents can afford to fly to the US to buy a US version of the software and fly back, for the same price they would pay in Australia for the software.

However, over the past six months, Adobe has refused to back down from its approach to the issue in the face of strong criticism from customers, customer advocacy groups and local politicians. The company has repeatedly stated that the cost of operating in the Australian market is different from those of other markets such as the US. In addition, during a recent visit to Australia, its chief executive Shantanu Narayen flatly refused to answer direct questions on the issue, instead repeatedly emphasising that the company saw the future of its products as being its leased version of Creative Suite, termed Creative Cloud, rather than the traditional Creative Suite software which still makes up the vast majority of its revenues.

Last week the managing director of Adobe’s Australian division, Paul Robson, attended the Federal Parliament’s IT price hike inquiry to discuss the company’s Australian pricing strategy. Robson did not voluntarily attend the inquiry but was compelled to do so after Adobe repeatedly declined to attend. The PDF transcript of Robson’s appearance is available here (PDF).

However, in his testimony, Robson made a number of statements which appeared to be misleading.

For example, asked whether it was economically and ethically justified to charge Australians substantially higher prices on the basis of geographic market segregation, Robson replied that what customers were seeking was “personalised” experiences from technology companies.

Robson further stated: “When we look at relevancy around personalisation, that is in relation to the redirection of customers when they access our website. When customers access the website they can choose to see whichever website they wish to see. We automatically try to get them to look at the Australian site, for a number of different reasons. There is local content. There is information in relation to local user groups and communities that use our technology that they can learn from and contribute to. There is information that is relevant to the local market in relation to Australian based pricing and other content and information.”

“That content is a richer and more personalised experience for an Australian customer than they would get if they accessed a webpage that was in another language or for another country.”

However, when customers visit Adobe’s Australian website, it is apparent that Robson’s comments about receiving a personalised experience directed at Australian customers appear to be misleading. For example, when customers seek to use the Australian website to source local training partners for training with Adobe’s products, they are directed to a page which by default has training partners listed globally — not specifically in Australia.

Similarly, Australians seeking support from the Adobe Australia website are directed to the company’s global support page. Customers seeking Adobe user groups from the Australian site are directed to the global user group site, and customers seeking other Australians to discuss Adobe products with through the company’s own forums are directed to Adobe’s global forum site; there does not appear at a cursory inspection to be a specific Australian section of the site.

Robson also appeared to have misled the inquiry with respect to the proportion of its customers who are choosing its monthly subscription-based Creative Cloud software, which has recently had its Australian price broadly harmonised with its US pricing, compared with the percentage of customers who are choosing traditional versions of Adobe software.

In the inquiry, the Adobe executive said that overwhelmingly, customers were choosing to buy Creative Cloud over traditional product licensing. “76 per cent of our customers are now purchasing Creative Cloud instead of the traditional perpetual licensing model,” Robson said.

However, Adobe’s most recent set of financial results do not support this claim. In the financial results for the three months to the beginning of March this year, the company’s Creative Cloud subscriptions appeared to have brought in some $233 million in revenue, according to detailed breakdowns of its revenue found on its investor relations data sheet (PDF). This represented only around a quarter of the company’s total revenue in that period of around $1 billion. While Adobe does sell a number of other complex services (such as its enterprise-focused LiveCycle software and its Marketing Cloud platform), this implies that Creative Cloud does not yet represent the majority of its revenue.

Furthermore, the company stated in other associated financial briefing documents (its investor handout PDF) for the same quarter that it anticipated that it would complete the bulk of the transition of its business to a Creative Cloud subscription model sooner than it had previously expected; implying that it had not yet made that transition.

It appears that Robson may have been referring only to software purchases made on Adobe’s website. “Creative Cloud is quickly becoming mainstream, with the overwhelming majority of Creative purchases on now being Creative Cloud subscriptions,” Narayen said with respect to the company’s Creative Cloud uptake at the financial results session (PDF). However, this would not take into account the fact that the bulk of Adobe’s software is sold through partners.

Robson also appeared to have misled the inquiry with relation to another matter.

At one point it was pointed out to the Adobe MD by Nationals MP Paul Neville that the components which went into the Creative Cloud platform — such as Photoshop, Illustrator and so on — are largely the same software components that go into Adobe’s traditional Creative Suite platform. “How is it that you can do that internationally for roughly the same price between the US and Australia and yet you cannot do it on the software that goes into that Cloud package?” Nevill asked.

Robson replied: “The software is the same, the delivery mechanism is different. The Creative Cloud does not require the media to be created or the box to be built from cardboard, wrapped in plastic, put on a pallet, put on some form of transportation, shipped to the country and shipped out to retail partners that require bricks and mortar, staff and training to then sell it on to end customers. There is a cost associated with traditional boxed product that you simply do not have when you deliver products and technology via the Cloud.”

However, Robson did not mention or address the fact that it is possible to download the full Creative Suite platform directly from Adobe’s website, with customers no longer being required to buy an actual physical boxed copy of the software. In this sense, the delivery mechanism is the same between Creative Cloud and Creative Suite. Updates to Creative Suite are also delivered online.

Robson later repeated the same statement in response to a question from Labor MP Ed Husic mentioning a number of specific Adobe products. “All the products that you made mention of have a physical box product equivalent that is sold through a distribution channel in this marketplace that has ongoing costs. The cloud-based delivery of those technologies has pricing in line with the pricing you see around the world,” said the Adobe executive. However, again Robson did not mention the fact that Adobe also makes available its traditional software for purely digital download, via the same mechanism as the Creative Cloud.

A number of fundamental questions about the nature of Adobe’s future relationship with its customers also came up in the inquiry. Narayen and Robson have both repeatedly stated in public that the future of Adobe’s business is in providing Creative Cloud subscriptions, rather than in selling traditional versions of software which can be installed once and used forever.

Labor MP Stephen Jones pointed out to Robson that every version of Microsoft Word he had bought in the past enabled him to open a document which had been created in an earlier version of that software. In addition, he did not have to pay a monthly subscription to access that software; once he bought it, he could always use it to open documents. This will not be the case with Creative Cloud; once customers stop paying the monthly subscription for the software, they will not be able to use it to open their files.

Robson replied: “And that is not vastly different from the entire history of the IT industry, where if you upgrade technology you lose the ability, in many cases, to access prior technology.”

However, Robson’s answer appears to be misleading. Jones was referring to the commercial model for using software such as Photoshop, and how it will change as the Creative Model comes into force. However, Robson replied by discussing the technical model for software upgrades in the history of the IT industry, where technical upgrades have made opening older files or access legacy technology.

If you are at all interested in this issue with respect to Adobe’s pricing behaviour and approach to its product development, I encourage you to read the full transcript of Robson’s appearance before the IT price hike inquiry. In addition, you may also find it interesting to have a gander at Adobe’s recent financial results briefing to get a feel for where the company as a whole is going.

When I filmed the video of Adobe chief executive Shantanu Narayen in Sydney in mid-February, I think much of the shock factor of the video (and the reason it attracted some 300,000 views on YouTube) was the sheer denial factor inherent in Narayen’s approach. It was a very simple contrast: Customers are expressing a clear wish for one thing from Adobe (harmonised prices on traditional Adobe software), but the company refused to even acknowledge that that was an issue, and is instead pushing customers towards a completely different model (monthly subscriptions).

What Robson’s testimony before the IT price hike inquiry shows us is that this was no one-off event for Adobe; it’s a deliberate strategy, and one which will be disturbing for many customers.

If you look at the historical buying patterns of Adobe customers, they have been along fairly standard lines. Customers pony up for an expensive copy of Photoshop, or Creative Suite if they need the extra functionality, and justify it as a one-off cost that they know they won’t have to repeat for a long time. Then, usually in about 3-5 years, when Adobe comes out with a new format or feature which they can’t get around doing without, they hunch their shoulders again and square up for another expensive upgrade.

While this has been great for customers — Adobe software tends to have a long shelf-life, even if it is expensive up-front — it’s not been great for Adobe. The company has suffered because the quality and comprehensive of its products has meant customers don’t buy upgrades from it often.

Adobe’s solution will eventually be to stop providing stand-alone copies of Photoshop or Creative Suite, and lock all of its customers into monthly Creative Cloud subscriptions only — there will be no other option. This outcome is clearly written between the lines in Adobe’s online marketing material and financial briefings right now.

Of course, this is a terrible outcome for customers. It will make the company’s software incredibly expensive for customers over the long-term, and it will mean that if for any reason customers decide they don’t want to fork out every month for the software any more, it will suddenly stop working.

You can understand this strategy in companies such as Google or, which actually provide software through a web browser as a service. However, that’s not what Creative Cloud is. Creative Cloud is essentially Adobe’s traditional software, bundled with some basic online services which its customers probably don’t want or need, and charged for on a monthly subscription basis. There’s very little “cloud” about it — Creative Cloud may be the most spectacularly mis-named software in existence.

This is why Adobe is pushing so hard back at the IT price hike inquiry and the ongoing customer complaints about its software right now. It is actively keeping its prices high on its traditional software so that customers will choose the Creative Cloud instead and sign up to its recurring revenue vision.

The unfortunate thing for many is that it’s working. The company’s Creative Cloud revenues are growing rapidly, and Narayen’s right — eventually all of its customers will be on the platform and its total revenues will ultimately be higher. At that stage, all Adobe has to do, as countless technology companies have before it, is gradually add “features” and increase the price gradually as a result. Subscription pricing is a great model — all you have to do is increase the individual pricing slightly and scale means total revenue will jump dramatically.

Of course, not everyone will be jumping on the Creative Cloud bandwagon. Many customers will investigate alternatives so that they don’t have to keep paying forever for Adobe software, ranging from simply not upgrading to Creative Cloud (after all, the latest version of Creative Suite has enough functionality that it should last for many years) to buying alternative software. But that doesn’t make Adobe’s actions OK here. I’d like to see the company take a less bullish approach to its customers in forcing them onto Creative Cloud and a less antagonistic approach to government concern about the way it’s acting in Australia. Given Adobe’s position in the software market, the company’s current actions feel like a company enjoying close to a monopoly position which is throwing its weight around a little too much.

Image credit: Adobe


  1. and That’s why we got rid of Adobe and replaced it with BlueBeam for our PDF readers/creators.
    I love the saying “The Independance Day scene where Jeff Goldblum hacks into the Alien mothership is so full of crap… Because when he turned on the laptop there were no Adobe updates!”

    • That’s awesome, except with BlueBeam….
      “Online purchasing for US and Canadian residents only. ”

      I can’t buy it online, but I can buy Adobe online.
      I guess that’s part of the personalized experience I get with them for being Australian.

      • Oh yes sorry we have offices around the globe we probably purchased it in bulk from there.
        That does suck when they do that.

      • Weird I was able to get to the Bluebeam checkout (they use I even select Australia as the shipping address.

  2. I got slightly ranty about this myself a few days ago:

    Effectively yes the Creative Cloud is coming whether we like or not but it sure as hell isn’t the rosy one size fits all pricing model it’s painted as. Under the current scheme my preferred Adobe application (Lightroom) would end up costing me many hundreds more over time than the current pricing model plus if I stop… well I’m screwed.

    Biggest problem? No other competitor comes even close to providing Lightroom type functionality (and yes I’ve tested many, many different ones).

  3. I believe lying to parliament is contempt, so fine adobe $25,000(the Aus market up on 15 copies of CS6 would cover it) and chuck Robson in jail for 6 months.

  4. In the Apple thread on this issue, I defended Apple, simply because I believe they have justified their stance. Their products arent hugely more expensive than they are overseas, and where they are has some justification to it through 3rd party involvement. They arent necessarily 100% honest over it all, but they are close.

    With Adobe, its the opposite. There is absolutely no difference between how you obtain some of their products here and in the US, so there is no justification for a significant price difference. Around 10% to allow for local taxes (on products over $1000), and that should be it.

    Instead, they are off on a tangent justifying 1 product, and ignoring where the real issue is. They are STILL trying to pull the wool over the inquiries eyes, and clearly failing.

    Put the two companies side by side and it should be clear that one is being delibrately deceptive, while at worst the other is merely pushing the boundaries without passing them.

    Stick it to Adobe, and stick it hard. They have no justification for ripping off consumers to the tune of thousands for a digital product.

    • dats sum Apple favouritism there. Adobe robbing Australia by charging more for the same crap as what they offer to the US is exactly the same thing that Apple is doing. You pretty much just said it yourself what Apple and Adobe are doing to us, only omitting Apple from the accusation.

      • What apple is doing is significantly different to what adobe are doing. Firstly and foremostly, there is a physical product involved. Because of that, there is a lot of up front cost that helps create the situation.

        With adobe, the product is digital, so what creates the problems for apple arent there. We get our software from exactly the same source as someone in the US – a website. And get charged different amounts, solely because our IP address isnt from the US. No other reason other than discrimination by location.

        I personally consider that a big difference, you may differ. Your opinion, and you’re entitled to it.

        I’m no apple fanboy, and have complained about their price discrimination for decades, but as things stand right now, theirs is in the realms of acceptable, while adobes isnt. I look at apple specifically looking at iPhones and iPads by the way, not iTunes.

        iTunes is a different problem alltogether, thanks to the music industry having their own say on geolocation pricing. For that side of things, there isnt much argument from me – prices are high mainly because of the Aussie tax. But when I look at something like an iPad, I dont see discrimination to the point an inquiry is needed. With adobe’s products I do.

        Then I look at how the two companies have approached this. Apple, while being dragged in this time, at least had a private talk last time, and DO work with authorities to make sure they are above board. Adobe have none of that.

        Of the two, I look at adobe and see guilt, while at worst I look at apple with suspicion.

      • I agree with gav on this. Apple actually has harmonised most of its hardware line. The software side that I am aware of, is mostly things like Itunes etc. In which case Apple don’t actually control that. The music pubs do.

        • +1. As expensive as Apple products are compared to the competition, their prices are actually relatively fair compared to Apple pricing in the US. Particularly in regards to apps, many of which have now reached parity at 99c (and the rest seem to be only 10% more expensive on average, once you get above the $1 price point).

  5. I’m still using my dated copy of CS3 for everything. I just cannot justify an upgrade at the cost Adobe put out there.

  6. Presumably some combination of IP remapping, US postal address and/or US credit card would allow us Australians to purchase at the US price?

    Is there any mechanism for Adobe to them stop us using the software in Australia?

    (Adobe is certainly making a mockery of everyone. I love the idea that they state that no GST is payable on online purchases, because it’s being sold from US servers by a US company. And then charges Australians a different price anyway. That’s chutzpah.)

    • Well for starters they’d need to be a legit US postal address and US credit card, otherwise you’re engaging in fraud.

      If you look at other companies with geolocation approaches, they tend to be aggressively proactive in terms of cracking down on things & considering it’s their service it’s up to you to prove you’re not Australian. Which is going to be a stretch for most Australian residents.

      If you look at Steam, you can get Americans to legitimately gift you games but that has also caused Steam to kick up a fuss & bar gifted purchases… and would you get around their actions? Sue? It’s not really a financially rewarding bunfight to get involved in unless you’re an unemployed law student.

      Non-cloud services allow for increased flexibility with grey-market purchases, but where upgrades & support are involved the same issues present themselves.

      All of that immediately puts it out of the realm of experience+convenience for most small businesses/organisations & individuals.

  7. With such crazy prices and blatant disregard for Aussie consumers, and a flat out refusal to acknowledge there’s even an issue, is there any wonder so many people turn to pirating their software? (not necessarily saying I’m one of them..)

  8. However, Adobe’s most recent set of financial results show that the company actually spent substantially more on sales, marketing, general and administrative costs (a total of $531 million in the three months to 1 March this year) than it did on research and development costs in that quarter ($206 million).

    Upfront R&D costs are capitalised on the balance sheet as intangible assets — the $206mn posted in the P&L is merely the periodic amortisation.

    • No, you’re just making that up.

      It’s their direct costs of R&D. Namely outsourced projects in India, where Adobe has offshored their product development.

      • This is what Mr Robson actually said:

        “With software there are enormous upfront and fixed costs for research and development, IT expense and the personnel required for sales and marketing.”

        “These costs associated with the ongoing marketing, sales and channel development costs, as well as the media replication for the software, are lower compared with the upfront costs but they do vary from market to market.”

        When Mr Robson talks about upfront costs, he’s referring to upfront costs for research and development, IT expense and the personnel required for sales and marketing.

        This is what Delimiter says:

        “The Adobe executive went on to state that costs associated with ongoing marketing, sales and channel development efforts to bring software to market, as well as the costs of producing media (typically DVDs) to distribute the software, were lower compared with the up-front research costs, but they did vary from market to market”

        and then goes on to infer that Adobe is being misleading (or telling lies) because the R&D expense in Adobe’s P&L is lower in amount than other categories of expense.

        See the disconnect between Mr Robson’s definition of upfront costs and Delimiter’s subtle misquoting and redefinition of Mr Robson’s actual testimony?

        • Hmm. You’ve got an interesing point there. It’s subtle. Upon re-reading the transcript, it is unclear precisely what Robson means here — there are several different interpretations. Because of this, I’ll remove those paragraphs from the story and post a note. Thanks for highlighting this!

  9. Adobe should be seriously punished for their acts, I know you can sanction a country, but can you do with a company?

  10. Just don’t buy their products. There are numerous cheap or free alternatives out there.
    Paint.Net does what most casual users need. CutePDF is pretty good and so on.

    Or use VPN to bypass Geoblocking.

    • Now there’s the funny thing. I’ve tried CutePDF, on several computers, Windows 7 x64, Vista x32, and in every occasaion it resulted in making the computer unstable.
      Applications wouldn’t start up, or would start very slowly.
      Shutting down the OS took considerably longer, or the computer wouldn’t shut down.
      It was only after uninstalling CutePDF, did these computers go back to normal.
      I’ve done searches, but couldn’t find anyone else who had this issue.

      • CutePDF isn’t an “application” per-say, it’s a virtual printer, but for it to work, you need to make sure you have GhostScript installed too.

        Over hundreds of PCs between XP, Vista, W7 and 8 that I’ve installed it on, I’ve never encountered any issues like this.

  11. What proportion of the creative industries use Adobe products – I suspect a very high one, and that is the problem. Revenue growth will not come from the existing client base without the dodgy cloud pricing, and Adobe has show itself outmaneuvered by companies like Apple when they turn Flash off.

    Adobe have lost sight of their reason for existing and are being run by money men who need to drive revenue growth to ensure their job longevity and ‘success’ in their roles.

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