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Does Adobe really "Love Choice"?

Adobe loves choice heartCould you live without your iLife applications (iPhoto, iMovie, iWeb, etc)? Or how about Apple’s iTunes? Microsoft’s Office apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc? Adobe InDesign? God forbid, Adobe Photoshop?

These programs are our daily tools – more important, dare I say it, than the operating system we use them on.

There are ready and able alternatives for most of the above. Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements take care of iPhoto and iMovie – if not quite as we like them. Office is dispensed with by online Google Docs and a bunch of open-source alternatives; that said, I still stick with trusty Word and Excel.

There’s the opportunity return to QuarkXPress for InDesign users (and vice versa) should either publishing program bite the dust, but Photoshop would be a shocking loss for most creatives.

iTunes is a tough one, as it not only acts as our digital jukebox but syncs our iPhones and iPads. But it’s certainly time for Apple to stop treating these independent platforms as glorified iPods.

Mostly then, we’d take the death of a favourite software program in our wounded stride. Who hasn’t switched at least their web browser at least once, from Internet Explorer to Safari or Firefox? I suspect we’d be pretty disoriented and grieve at the loss for a while. But some of us would get angry and want to get even with whoever it was who took away primary tool and skill base.

One such group of disenfranchised software users is Free FreeHand, a group of over 5,000 pissed-off designers who have banded together to try to protect the software they use for their livelihood from extinction due to what they regard as Adobe's cruel and monopolistic tactics.  

A designer at Neville Brody’s Research Studios describes the impending loss of FreeHand (eventually the undeveloped software won’t run on new processors or updated operating systems) as an amputation: “For me it basically feels like an additional limb used purely for design, a third arm that understands and knows what I want,”

FreeHand was once a fit and healthy rival to Adobe Illustrator, but has been owned by Adobe since 2005, and has not been updated since (it is still available to purchase, however). It was created by Altsys and licensed to Aldus.

When Aldus merged with Adobe its future was deemed at risk because of Adobe’s rival Illustrator vector program. Following intervention by the Federal Trade Commission to prevent a purchase due to anti-competitive characteristics Adobe was forced to return FreeHand to Altsys soon after the merger.

But FreeHand couldn’t hide from Adobe for long. Altsys was bought by Macromedia, which released FreeHand versions 5 to 11/MX. In an ironic and possibly fatal twist Adobe acquired Macromedia in 2005, returning FreeHand to the home of arch-enemy Illustrator.

FreeHand "basically hasn’t been updated in eight years", complains the Free FreeHand group.

“With Adobe’s CS5 just released and millions of Illustrator users, why does Adobe care to suppress FreeHand? A niche user audience of an estimated 20- or 30,000 designers should not be of concern to a corporation like Adobe,” says group spokesperson Christine Stepherson.

“Letters and more than 1,000 postcards have fallen on deaf ears at Adobe. The request has been to make upgrades or release FreeHand to the open-source community. But after Adobe’s ten-year strategy to shut down its main competition, many feel that the likelihood is slim,” she sighs.

Stepherson thinks that Adobe’s rumoured legal action against Apple’s anti-Flash war is ironic given its slow smothering of Illustrator’s main competitor: “Adobe has turned the mirror on its own practices,” she says.

Free FreeHand would ask where Adobe’s imprisonment of FreeHand sits in the company’s new “Adobe loves Choice” advertising campaign, which declares that “Innovation thrives when people are free to choose the technologies that enable them to openly express themselves and access information where and when they want. Everyone loses when technological barriers impede the exchange of ideas. No company – no matter how big or how creative – should dictate what you can create or how you create it.”

Certainly Adobe is not embracing its love of choice when it comes to letting FreeHand continue to develop or even exist on new PCs or Macs. There’s just one ‘choice’: Illustrator.

Free FreeHand has not ruled out legal action as a means of persuading Adobe of its commitment to this cause: "Corporations that buy and bury the products of others, just because they are unable to produce a better product, do harm to our society. Not only do they act unethically, they also obstruct - all in the name of corporate profits!" states the group on its website.

Free FreeHand expects the software to be completely unusable on pending operating systems sometime in the next five years, if not earlier. On its FreeHand product page Adobe states that: “No updates to FreeHand have been made for over four years, and Adobe has no plans to initiate development to add new features or to support Intel-based Macs and Windows Vista.

“While we recognize FreeHand has a loyal customer base, we encourage users to migrate to the new Adobe Illustrator CS5 software, which supports both PowerPC and Intel-based Macs and Microsoft Windows XP and Windows Vista.”

To be fair Adobe has over time enhanced Illustrator with some of FreeHand’s beloved layout/drawing features, and the CS5 version is a superb tool – including multiple artboards to match FreeHand’s more flexible page-layout capabilities.

In a 2008 interview Senior Product Manager of Illustrator Terry Hemphill told FreeHand users: “Adobe will continue to evaluate the demand for FreeHand before bringing the product to end-of-life. It's not our intention to force people into another solution.”

“FreeHand is not going to be revived; time to move on, really. The Illustrator team is making a determined effort to bring the best of FreeHand into Illustrator, which should be evident from some of the new features in CS4,” he said.

Earlier, in 2007, Hemphill admitted that Adobe should have come clean about the future of FreeHand at the beginning:

“In a perfect world I would have preferred that a clear statement was made up front. I’ve meet and have had lengthy conversations with many FreeHand users, distraught over the thought of losing their favourite software, but most simply wanted two things: first, to be heard; second, a direct answer”.

“But I wouldn’t have “rescued” FreeHand. From a business perspective, it isn’t practical.”

You can’t argue that Adobe hasn’t been pretty clear that it’s not going to rescue FreeHand from its impending technical death, and Hemphill had a message for the FreeHand mob: “There are a number of vocal users who will wring their hands over any changes to any software or system, and imagine conspiracies where none really exist. Most of us adapt and move on”.

Adobe Illustrator CS5 is a superb tool that not only features frequently enhanced graphic functionality but incorporates much - although not all - that made FreeHand so popular.

But Free FreeHand isn’t just moaning about specific software features. Fundamentally it accuses Adobe of creating a monopoly in the vector-editing software market: “The important and over-arching topic is that consumers no longer have a choice in the programs they wish to use to make a living,” says Stepherson.   

Free FreeHand believes that the open-source community could quickly make FreeHand compatible with new hardware and operating systems.

“The lack of competition is also not good for users of Adobe Illustrator. The lack of innovation and total price control means Illustrator users are getting a lacklustre product with each upgrade and have nowhere else to turn if they are unhappy with the product,” Stepherson warns.

I’ve searched for but can’t find a Free PageMaker group, another old Aldus application that Adobe snuffed out on the altar of InDesign but which still lives on in the company’s coma ward. Mac FrameMaker users are another group possibly seeking their revenge on Adobe.

Software programs have no right not to be superseded but should one company be allowed to keep its boot on a program’s neck because it’s a direct competitor? Does Adobe truly “love choice”? FreeHand users are begging to differ.

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