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Adobe's new Creative Suite

Tom Arah wonders whether the new Creative Suite is necessarily a good thing for all Adobe users.

As readers of last month's article will know my big excitement for October was the launch of twins. More than enough excitement you might think. Unfortunately Adobe thought otherwise and decided to release not just the new version of Photoshop, which is a big event in its own right, but also new releases of Illustrator, InDesign and GoLive! Moreover it decided to launch them all, alongside the recent Acrobat 6 Professional, as part of a new combined Creative Suite much as Macromedia did last year when it combined Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks and FreeHand into the Studio MX suite. From my point of view this clearly wasn't ideal timing but, rather more importantly, is it necessarily a good thing for the end user?

October's big launches: Photoshop CS, Robbie and Daniel.

It's clearly a very attractive idea for Adobe. By switching from the traditional version number to the new "CS" suffix, the suggestion is made that "Photoshop CS" is a more significant release than a mere "Photoshop 8" and likewise for all the other apps. At the same time, the fact that the suffix is shared amongst all the apps implies a new level of integration designed to encourage users of one product to buy into the others. And with the simultaneous launch guaranteeing saturation coverage and, crucially, providing the opportunity to introduce an attractive pricing policy, the deal is done. The end result is that users of a single product become users of the whole Adobe design range and consequently less likely to jump ship in future. In other words, the launch of a successful integrated suite doesn't just generate extra revenue in the short term it guarantees it for the long term too.

The benefits for the developer are obvious but what about for the end user? Undoubtedly the most immediately attractive advantage of the new Creative Studio is the price. With suggested street pricing of $699 for InDesign, $649 for Photoshop, $499 for Illustrator, $449 for Acrobat 6 Professional and $399 for GoLive, the combined standalone price would be a whopping $2695. Instead Adobe can afford to sell the whole creative suite at just $1229 - in other words for less than half the standalone cost and, very roughly, just $250 per application.

That's the headline price for new purchasers but in fact those most likely to buy into the Creative Suite strategy are actually existing users of Adobe products and so will be looking to upgrade rather than buy new. As such the upgrade strategy is crucial. To keep things as clear and simple, Adobe has decided on a single price and single upgrade path to the full suite. The upgrade price for the latest versions of all five applications is just $749 and Adobe is making the offer available to users of any version of its most popular flagship program Photoshop - that means 90% of all users of any Adobe product according to the company. As the upgrade price for Photoshop alone is $169 (itself a bargain incidentally), if you've got an old copy of Photoshop lying around you can effectively upgrade to the latest version and at the same time get your hands on InDesign, Illustrator, GoLive and Acrobat Professional for less than $150 each!

Adobe offers two suite versions and two upgrade offers.

The persuasiveness of the logic is difficult to resist and there's no wonder that, with a very similar approach, Macromedia now sells as many copies of its full Studio MX suite as it does of all the standalone applications put together. But hold on. As the end user experience of the CorelDRAW suite shows, if you don't use a program it might as well not be in the box and you certainly don't want to pay for it. Of course unlike the many CorelDRAW suite apps that came and went - MOVE, SHOW, DREAM-3D and so on - the Adobe applications are each professional standard flagships with a strong future ahead of them. Even so that doesn't mean that you personally are going to use them.

The most likely application to be of no interest to a large number of users is GoLive as its web focus is so different to the print focus of the others. Adobe recognizes as much by offering a Standard Edition of the Creative Suite which drops GoLive. Disappointingly though, it also drops Acrobat Professional which is such an obvious print-oriented application that its omission can only be explained in marketing terms as an encouragement to buy the full Premium Edition. For the Standard Edition that leaves Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign which make a natural print-oriented bitmap, vector and DTP partnership. The price here is $999 which is still roughly half the combined standalone prices.

However the big disappointment is the upgrade price which is again available to users of any version of Photoshop. At $549 the upgrade price to the Standard Edition actually works out at more than the combined price of the three separate upgrades (just $169 each)! This is especially bizarre as the lack of discounts for existing users of Illustrator and InDesign means that Adobe is effectively penalizing its most loyal customers. To be fair the Suite does add Adobe's file and version management software, Version Cue, but for its main target audience it's certainly no longer a no-brainer to buy into the Suite strategy.

In any case there's far more to a successful suite than the price. So how does the Creative Suite fare in terms of the all-important integration of its interface, functionality and overall workflow? In terms of the Creative Suite's work environment, Adobe is heavily pushing the benefits of its shared interface with common features such as its menu arrangements, vertical toolbar and especially use of palettes.

Well up to a point. To begin with, there's no benefit consolidating on a bad interface and sadly its working environment has never been the strongest point of Adobe's applications. In particular, Adobe's much-vaunted reliance on multiple palettes makes it easy to add new functionality but adds serious complexity and soon gets out of hand for the end user - InDesign CS offers no less than 34 palettes! At least this is an area that Adobe is tackling across the Standard Edition of the Creative Suite with its moves towards dockable palettes, re-usable stored workspaces and a central context-sensitive Control palette that brings together the most important palette-based options for each application.

InDesign's interface is the model, but the other apps still have some way to go.

Typically though the implementation is inconsistent with Photoshop, and InDesign offering different docking systems while Illustrator offers none. Likewise Illustrator doesn't even offer the ability to store palette workspaces. Most disappointing of all, the new context-sensitive central Control palette, which makes such a huge difference to productivity, is only available in InDesign and, again differently, in Photoshop's Objects Bar. Overall, while the big three Standard Edition applications are moving towards an efficient shared environment along the Macromedia MX model, they are still some way off achieving it.

In terms of interface integration the Creative Suite scores a should-do-better 6 out of 10, so what about its functional integration? Again Adobe is singing the benefits of features such as its shared Colour and Swatches palette, and the Pen tool which works the same way in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. The benefits of doing the same tasks in the same way can't be over-estimated and features such as the new advanced type handling in Illustrator, imported wholesale from InDesign, and Photoshop's new support for nested layers, imported from Illustrator, certainly make it much easier to move between applications.

Again though there's serious inconsistency. For example: while Illustrator now supports InDesign's top-of-the-range typography, Photoshop's still lags; and while Photoshop CS now supports Illustrator-style nested layers, InDesign does not. Rather than rolling a feature out across the whole suite simultaneously, Adobe seems to be deliberately holding back, presumably to reserve must-have features for the next release. This is most noticeable with Photoshop CS's most impressive new feature, Layer Comps, which allows different compositions to be saved within the same file. It's invaluable within Photoshop but would make even more sense within Illustrator and InDesign.

Rw112comps.png: Layer handling is still different in each CS application.

While it could be better, the Creative Suite's functional integration scores a respectable 8 out of 10 and is undoubtedly a huge strength. It's also crucial when it comes to workflow integration. Because Adobe has pulled out shared features such as type handling and colour management as separate engines that are implemented across all applications, it means that it's much easier to share work. Illustrator and InDesign will honour embedded colour profiles in Photoshop PSD file for example, while you can even cut and paste basic artwork from Illustrator and edit it directly within InDesign. By its nature, design work tends to mix bitmap photos, vector artwork and type so this ability to work hand-in-hand is the Standard Edition's unbeatable selling-point.

And that's before you take into account the Creative Suite's greatest workflow strength: its PDF (portable document format) support. Adobe has been working on this PostScript-inspired file format for years now and each of the big three applications offers rich support with the ability to store all native file information to PDF (the main CS apps now support multitone PDFs to round-out their commercial print capabilities). In addition each application can read and place PDF files so that it's possible to have PDF-only print workflows with Illustrator and Photoshop PDF images embedded in an InDesign multi-page PDF for reliable commercial output on a PDF-native PostScript 3 device.

It's here with its print-oriented workflow integration that the Creative Suite Standard Edition scores an excellent 9.5 out of 10 and, if you're producing work for commercial print, it's difficult to argue with the benefits (especially as the main competitor, the DTP-only QuarkXPress 6, with its bought-in and lightweight PDF support, costs as much itself as InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator combined). For print-oriented work there's no doubt that the Standard Edition sets a new benchmark. And one that it would be very hard for any other developer to move in on - after all Adobe is in control of the development of the all-important Acrobat PDF format.

The benefits for the print-oriented designer of the integration between the Standard Edition's Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are conclusive, but what about the Premium Edition with its two other applications, Acrobat and GoLive?

In a way you could argue that there's no longer any real need for the print designer to own Acrobat 6 Professional (reviewed issue ) as the Standard Edition apps can all read and write the Acrobat PDF format directly. In practice though it's still an essential part of the PDF workflow. This is no longer so much for the initial creation of PDFs via Distiller (though it's certainly handy to be able to convert work from any other Windows application to PDF) but rather for the program's commenting and review features and, in its latest version 6 incarnation, for its prepress capabilities such as preflighting and separation previews. On the other hand, most PDF-oriented designers are already likely to have upgraded to the latest version so this incentive to upgrade to the Premium Edition is partly removed.

So what about GoLive? As I pointed out earlier, a web authoring package is inevitably going to look semi-detached when compared to the other primarily print-oriented applications and this feeling is reinforced when you look at how GoLive is integrated into the suite. To begin with, and despite Adobe's feigned excitement about presenting the Objects palette in a vertical format to make it look more like a toolbar and yet another different palette docking implementation, there's actually very little connection between the GoLive CS interface and the other apps apart from the overabundance of palettes and a general need for streamlining.

The web-oriented GoLive CS is the odd-one-out in the Creative Suite strategy.

Likewise when it comes to functional integration; the needs of web design are so different from print design that there's little synergy. Features such as the shared text, drawing and layer handling that tie Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign together have little place when it comes to the Web. Adobe has grafted on its shared profile-based colour management support to GoLive but frankly the Web's just not ready for colour accuracy and so this just adds yet more unnecessary complexity.

When it comes to workflow integration, Adobe does what it can to benefit from the other Suite apps with its SmartObjects graphics technology. This enables you to drag and drop Illustrator vector artwork and Photoshop bitmaps onto your web page with GoLive CS automatically maintaining the link to the original file and producing the optimized JPEG or GIF for web display. In some circumstances this is a major advantage, say if you're experimenting with a design-rich layout where you can update or resize your web images automatically. In most circumstances though it just adds to the feeling of bloat and you're better off dealing directly with your streamlined JPEGs and GIFs.

Where you'd expect GoLive CS to feel most detached from the rest of the suite is in terms of its Acrobat support as it's initially difficult to see much of a role for PDF within a web environment as of course all web pages are built on HTML/CSS code rather than PostScript. Adobe is determined to leverage its secret weapon however and needs to make a convincing case for it to justify the linking of GoLive and Acrobat in the Premium Edition.

As such, GoLive CS actually integrates PDF authoring more tightly than any of the Standard Edition applications with the inclusion of a PDF Preview pane directly within the main work environment. Simply switch to this and you can instantly turn your pages and site diagrams into PDF files. It's simple and effective but the obvious question is: why would you want to? Adobe's answer is to enable secure PDF-based review which is certainly useful but will only be relevant to some work set-ups.

In spite of Adobe's best efforts, it looks like PDF has relatively little to offer when it comes to the web publishing workflow, but this is where GoLive CS pulls off its greatest coup, not by leveraging the obvious graphic candidates Photoshop and Illustrator but rather by integrating with InDesign. With InDesign's Package for GoLive command a special optimized PDF is created of the current print publication complete with live links to the original graphic files and XML-based text. Open this PDF into GoLive CS and you can drag and drop the graphics onto your layout as resizable SmartObjects and drag the text onto your page as CSS-formatted stories.

It's a brilliant piece of lateral thinking and, more importantly, is genuinely useful as it enables efficient web repurposing that is semi-automated while retaining manual flexibility and creativity. It's definitely a big selling-point for the typical Adobe designer primarily interested in - and expert in - print design but needing to offer design-rich web content too. Almost single-handedly it gives GoLive CS a useful and integrated role within the Creative Suite enabling high-design and graphic-rich print publications to be republished to the entirely different media of the Web.

GoLive CS adds another string to PDF's bow: web repurposing.

The integration with InDesign is undoubtedly clever and for some users very useful - but let's not get carried away. It's important to realize that the system is only partly-automated and that making the most of it therefore involves considerable hands-on effort. For design-intensive creative web work this effort is justified, but for most regular basic web page design you're probably better off starting again from scratch without the extra bloat and complexity involved with SmartObjects and linked text components. And if you do start again from your original text files and pre-optimised JPEGs, then you're definitely better off putting your pages together in the much more streamlined and efficient Macromedia Dreamweaver environment.

This is the bottom line. Yes, a fully-integrated suite benefits the end user, but only if all of its components are the absolute top-of-the range. GoLive CS is certainly a competent performer and Adobe has done well to find it a design-intensive web role to complement its print flagships - but it's not Dreamweaver. The obvious comparison is to the role of PHOTO-PAINT within the CorelDRAW suite. PHOTO-PAINT is a perfectly good photo editor and these days well-integrated with CorelDRAW in terms of its interface, functionality and workflow - but it's not Photoshop. And, if you're a professional, the benefits of using the best solution available far outweigh the costs of the software.

This isn't just something that you should bear in mind if you're currently trying to decide whether to stick to the standalones or to upgrade to the Premium or Standard Editions of the Creative Suite; it has long term repercussions. Users were originally attracted to the CorelDRAW suite on the basis that they were effectively getting a capable photo editor for free alongside the main drawing package. Over time though PHOTO-PAINT fell further behind Photoshop and, since a suite is inevitably judged by all its components, became less willing to upgrade. Eventually users came to realize that PHOTO-PAINT wasn't free at all but an unused and unwanted cost. In other words, what had been a major attraction of the suite became a major turn-off and helped lead to Corel's current problems.

Ultimately there's no question that a truly integrated suite offers more than the sum of its parts and that both versions of the Creative Suite make very attractive propositions. However it's important to realize that while the benefits are obvious you should also bear in mind the disadvantages - and that's true for user and developer alike.

Tom Arah

January 2004

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