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Practical Mac

In one of my other incarnations of being a freelance writer and editor, I write how-to books about using Macs, iPads, cameras, and digital photo software. Unlike most authors, I “package” my books, which means I lay out the text and artwork in Adobe InDesign and then hand over the finished title to my publisher (after a professional proofreader and indexer have taken passes, of course).

InDesign is indispensable for me, even though I use the app in a relatively narrow spectrum. I’m not designing posters or packaging, for example. That means I don’t need the latest bells and whistles, and so I don’t need to jump on every latest version when it appears.

But software marches ever forward, and for my latest book project I realized I needed InDesign CS6 to open newer templates. Not having updated in a while, I was prepared to pay the $249 fee to upgrade InDesign CS5 to CS6 (it’s $125 if you own InDesign CS5.5, and before Dec 31, 2012, owners of InDesign CS3 or CS4 could upgrade for $249; the retail cost for InDesign CS6 is $699).

If you go to Adobe’s website (, however, those numbers are hard to find, because the company is zealous about promoting its Adobe Creative Cloud. Instead of paying a fixed sum to upgrade, you can pay a monthly subscription fee and get the software.

But wait … software by subscription? As someone who threw away good money as a teen by subscribing to music services that automatically sent a CD every month, the notion of paying a monthly amount just to use software made my teeth ache. Especially since I wouldn’t be able to keep the software if I unsubscribed. A continuing fee and enforced-version lock-in — who wouldn’t want that?

Well, here’s where it gets sticky, because if you have a small business as I do, Creative Cloud may actually make sense. Instead of laying out $249 at once, I get to download and use InDesign CS6 for $19.99 per month if I sign up for an annual plan, or $29.99 per month on a month-to-month basis. If you need the entire Creative Suite, a subscription costs $49.99 per month, or $29.99 per month for the first year if you already own individual apps or the full Creative Suite version CS3 or later.

I benefit some from timing: InDesign CS5.5 was released in April 2011 and InDesign CS6 was released in May 2012, so it’s likely that a new version could be released within the next year, in which case I can use that new edition while still spending less than the upgrade fee for CS6 under the annual plan.

Adobe is also going about this smartly. If I thought this project could be wrapped up in less than a month, I could use CS6 free, since all of the Creative Suite apps are available for 30-day trials. If I knew that other upcoming books could be done in InDesign CS5 (updates to existing books, for example, where I already have the templates), I could even subscribe at the month-to-month plan and end up paying just $40 or $60 to use CS6 for only this project.

The software isn’t locked or limited and, using the Adobe Application Manager software, I can pick other apps if the need arises.

And, remarkable as this sounds for those who’ve been in the trenches, installing the software was easy. I installed the new version alongside the old one, and after paying for the subscription on the Web, I used the reminder window (which pops up whenever you launch the software in trial mode) to sign in using my Adobe ID and activate the license; I didn’t have to type a single license number.

I’m relating my particular situation to show how it works for my needs. I know that not everyone is in the same position, though I suspect Creative Cloud will be popular with students or freelancers who need piecemeal access to Creative Suite apps.

If you run a larger company you definitely want to scan the pricing options. But as I sit here with several old, hulking boxes of software staring down from a shelf behind me, I’m liking this subscription option.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to Practical Mac columns at