It seemed like an intriguing deal. An old version of Adobe Creative Suite—the 2005 vintage CS2, to be precise—became freely downloadable from Adobe, with nothing more than a free-to-create Adobe ID required from users. Although basically useless for Mac users, as CS2 is only available for PowerPC, for Windows users this is a powerful, if not quite cutting edge, suite of graphics apps.
This looked like a clever move from Adobe. Photoshop is widely held to be one of the most routinely pirated applications there is. In making an old but still servicable version of the software it appeared that Adobe was offering a good alternative to piracy: instead of using a knock-off copy of CS6, just use CS2.
A free CS2 would also go some way toward starving alternative applications of oxygen. Given the choice between a free copy of CS2 and downloading, say, the GIMP, one imagines that many users would plump for the commercial application. It’s more of a known quantity, with a more polished user interface. And Photoshop is, frankly, the gold standard of bitmap image editing. Even an older version has a prestige that GIMP doesn’t. This is not to say that CS2 is necessarily superior to the GIMP; it may or may not be. It doesn’t really matter; Photoshop has a reputation and respect that the GIMP doesn’t have, and even if some might argue that it was undeserved, it influences the decisions users make.
Giving away an old version in this way certainly appears unusual, and perhaps even a little brave for a commercial company such as Adobe. But Adobe is already being quite brave at the moment. The company is in many ways reinventing the way it both develops and licenses its products. It is creating a wide range of HTML5-oriented tools under the Edge brand that use a mix of open source and proprietary technology, and it is pushing hard its subscription software model with the Creative Cloud.
In this context, giving away an old version of its software doesn’t seem quite so outlandish. It might sacrifice some revenue (though one suspects not all that much), but it strengthens Photoshop’s dominance—and also makes Adobe look pretty good, to boot. And although an unusual move, it’s not entirely unprecedented. Just last month, Microsoft made its previously commercial Expression suite freely downloadable after the company decided to cease further development. But this isn’t quite the same; Creative Suite is still a going concern for Adobe. Expression isn’t for Microsoft.
Unfortunately, it appears that Adobe wasn’t really intending to give out CS2 for everyone. Shortly after news of the apparently free software spread across Twitter on Monday, the download page became unavailable, producing an error instead. Subsequent blog and forum posts indicate that this wasn’t an inspired decision to liberate an obsolete but still useful application after all. It was something between a mistake, an error of judgement, and a misunderstanding.
CS2 used a product activation scheme to control licensing. When you install the software, it interrogates an Internet server to ensure that the license key you entered is acceptable. In December, Adobe retired the activation servers used by CS2. This posed a problem for CS2’s licensed users, because without the activation servers, they can no longer reinstall the software.
To help these people out, Adobe offered versions of CS2 that didn’t need activation. Mere entry of the serial numbers that Adobe put on the download page would suffice. The company says that although it looks like it was giving the software away for free, it in fact wasn’t. It was just trying to assist its customers. Adobe says in order to legally use CS2, users still require a purchased license.
There are ways that Adobe could have helped out these users that didn’t result in putting the software up on a server that anyone could get at. For example, the company could have released a patch that removed the activation checks from the applications and the license key entry from the installer. This could work with original media, and hence not require distribution of CS2. For whatever reason, the company decided not to go this route.
So it turns out that rather than doing something a little bit daring and unusual—something that might even inspire a new approach to licensing old, obsolete software—Adobe was doing something somewhat useful for existing, paid up, licensed users, in a rather peculiar way. This is a shame. The company could have earned a lot of goodwill by making CS2 free, and it would have been easy enough to offer a no-cost license for the software.
There is one final surprise. Originally, acquiring CS2 required an Adobe ID. It seemed a fair enough trade; Adobe knows your e-mail address and name, and in return you get some no-cost software. Since the whole issue blew up on Twitter, forcing the company to issue its clarification, perhaps one would have expected it to restrict access to the downloads, or use some other technique to remove the activation check.
It has not. Instead, Adobe has made CS2 even easier to get, by removing the Adobe ID requirement. The company created a new CS2 download page, and this time around, it had no registration requirement at all.
It’s almost as if the company wanted people to download the software.
Update: Or perhaps not. The new download page has now been pulled. Alas. While it’s still working for some people, for others, it’s redirecting to a CS6 page.