Can Free Software Alone Get You Through an MBA Program?

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As a means of introducing products to more new users, in June 2022, Adobe surprised industry analysts with plans to actually make several traditionally premium-priced flagship applications—like the company’s most famous product, Photoshop—free for everyone.

Although most pre-MBA and MBA students don’t typically spend a lot of hours each week with Photoshop, and the company has traditionally discounted the application’s price for some student customers, Adobe’s new pricing strategy carries implications for our readers that extend far beyond this one product.

The change demonstrates how the trend towards free software appears to be gaining traction so rapidly that graduating from a top MBA program might no longer require much in the way of paid software—or any paid software at all.

Free versions of software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms like Dropbox and desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) platforms like Google Workspace that run in web browsers are no longer new innovations; in our reviews of the best mobile apps for MBA students, we first recommended the Google Docs word processor back in August 2018.

But SaaS and DaaS are very new business models for Adobe, which didn’t even begin intensive development on projects like these before about 2020.

A Free Adobe Photoshop?

Describing its new implementation as a “freemium” service, Adobe told the media that a free-to-use beta version of Photoshop running core functionality in a web browser had already entered market tests in certain areas. At some point, Adobe plans to block some premium features behind a subscription paywall, but users living in Canada—including college and MBA students—can already log into this kind of core-functional browser version by creating a 100 percent free account. This new platform will enable them to perform basic image editing, collaborate on image enhancements, and comment on their shared images.

Unfortunately, for the time being, users outside of Canada who don’t cloak their location through a virtual private network (VPN) still need to pay for an Adobe subscription to try out the beta web application.

However, the company’s long-term objective is clearly to make the platform more accessible for trials by potential customers, and Adobe hopes that additional exposure will land a broader range of subscribers beyond the firm’s core customer base of power users on high-end Macintosh and PC workstations. Adobe appears to especially view web browser functionality as critical, since with that added capability, one of the firm’s most lucrative products would gain access to Google’s Chromebook platform. Those devices are extensively used these days in schools and by college and graduate students.

Photoshop isn’t the first application for which Adobe has offered free limited access as a strategy to capture more customers who’ll want to buy full versions later—and certainly, it won’t be the last. In response to unanticipated competition from the nine-year-old Australian-developed and free-to-use Canva design platform, which has 75 million mostly non-professional monthly users and premium plans starting at only about $10 per month, Adobe has applied a similar marketing strategy to its Creative Cloud Express and Fresco mobile apps.

The company is also known to be developing an Adobe Illustrator web application platform similar to Photoshop’s that could similarly appear under a freemium pricing model. And rumors are swirling within the industry that a must-have application for which many MBA students already buy subscriptions—Acrobat Pro DC—is also headed for a browser version. Unlike the free and extremely limited Acrobat Reader, the Pro web app is expected to enable users to edit, reorganize, and compress PDF documents.

For a company like Adobe to introduce any free versions of flagship applications at all—an option no doubt unthinkable by its management only a couple of years ago—such a move might amount to a bellwether indicator of just how much momentum the trend towards free software may be gaining. After all, Adobe posted $15.8 billion in 2021 sales, employs 26,000 employees, and has grown recurring revenue at roughly 20 percent per year on average.

What’s more, that financial performance has remained remarkably consistent since Adobe’s late 1982 launch five miles from Stanford University at a Silicon Valley garage in Los Altos, California. With that kind of track record, this is arguably one of the last tech companies one might expect would ever offer products under a freemium model.

Did Adobe’s Price Gouging Spark Free App Demand?

But these marketplace shifts may also have something to do with Adobe’s own controversial business practices.

The company discontinued boxed software in favor of continuously-updated, cloud-based rental subscriptions starting in 2013. Back then, the final edition of its complete Creative Suite (CS) bundle of boxed DVDs containing its applications Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Premiere Pro, Bridge, Encore, and SpeedGrade retailed for a whopping $2,600, with annual updates averaging about $900.

Not included in the Creative Suite during that period were several key industry-standard products that professional designers used all the time to build websites and produce documents, and Adobe only sold those products separately. Those products included the company’s website-building platform Dreamweaver, which we discuss below, the firm’s InDesign page layout system for print and PDF documents, and the latter tool’s integrated word processor, InCopy.

Currently, the company offers a comparable cloud-delivered bundle of updated applications similar to the old Creative Suite, rebranded as Adobe Creative Cloud. This newer CC package rents under a subscription plan to about 26 million customers for roughly $85 per month.

Here’s what that means: If the boxed versions still existed, a customer buying the carton and seven typical updates over ten years would pay significantly less than a customer on the cloud plan. And many customers have never been happy for most of the last decade about that camouflaged price hike accompanied by no additional value.

Adobe’s move towards free software might also be motivated by the company’s desire to ameliorate a long history of price gouging allegations that caught fire on social media and attracted the scrutiny of government regulators. In one widely-reported incident as far back as 2013, the Australian government forced the company to slash prices after its investigation revealed that nation’s customers were required to pay Adobe on average about 240 AUD more annually—or 21 percent more—than American customers for the same Creative Cloud bundle. A 2014 analysis by a European competitor then revealed that Adobe’s customers in Germany were paying 65 percent more for software with nearly identical functionality as the versions sold to customers in the United States.

Then, on Twitter in April 2021, an irate customer disclosed the language in his copy of Adobe’s contract. That language was deceptive, and the agreement dictated steep cancellation penalties. The customer also posted a screenshot of an invoice where Adobe billed him a $300 fine simply because he canceled his Creative Cloud subscription, for which he had been paying about $73 each month. A Newsweek investigation later found that other Adobe subscribers who cancel were being “charged a lump sum amount of 50 percent of your remaining contract obligation.”

Best Apps with Free Plans for MBA Students

Well aware of the trends driving industry players like Adobe towards free software pricing models, marketing consultant, and Medium writer Jano le Roux then conducted his own search for the best free applications. In July 2022, he evaluated examples of high-value SaaS or DaaS software platforms offering at least one free membership plan. And believe it or not, 11 such tools made le Roux’s list.

Although he specifically searched for free applications one would need to build a modern startup company from scratch, several of the tools le Roux identified are also ideal for MBA students. They include:

  • Data tracking: Airtable
  • Database: MongoDB
  • Web development: Webflow
  • Task management: Trello
  • Design: Figma
  • Domain email: Zoho
  • Virtual private network: Proton VPN
  • Web host: Netlify
  • Automation: Zapier
  • Forms and surveys: Tally

Some of these applications might be especially useful to an MBA student enrolled in a class requiring the completion of a team project, such as an entrepreneurship, strategy, or capstone course. In particular, we discuss three such applications next.

Airtable

As we point out in our review of the best mobile apps for MBA students, Airtable is a shared, cloud-based flexible information manager that’s the go-to app for many business school team projects based around data sets. Why? The platform allows multiple users to work with shared data simultaneously because it combines the best features of spreadsheets and databases with real-time collaboration.

Airtable enables users to store data, share it among collaborators, and structure the data so it displays not only as charts and graphs, but also in specialized formats such as catalogs, inventory lists, or calendars. The mobile app is best suited for reviewing data and work completed by team members, along with messaging and compiling research notes.

Le Roux especially likes Airtable for use cases like customer data management across multiple product or service offerings. That’s because the platform can automate daunting functions like invoice generation, yet keep pace as a startup rapidly scales up to greater numbers of customers. This means that a “base” (Airtable’s term for its databases) created as part of a simulated company within a strategy or entrepreneurship class project should scale seamlessly and rapidly if the students win seed funding and convert their team project into an actual startup.

Yes, Airtable has a free plan, which should be adequate for many MBA class projects. Unlimited bases are available for up to five creators or editors. The free plan also enables an unlimited number of commenters and read-only users, and it provides for limits of up to 1,200 records per base and 2 GB of attachments. Users who need greater capacity can upgrade to 5,000 records and 5 GB of attachments for only $12 billed monthly.

MongoDB

For database use cases that aren’t a good fit for Airtable or have a massive amount of data, le Roux recommends MongoDB. The main advantage of this cloud-hosted SaaS database system is that it’s ridiculously cheap, with the first million data reads completely free. Customers only pay ten cents for every million reads beyond that first million. And even the free plan offers end-to-end encryption and always-on authentication.

Webflow

For MBA students who need to build small demonstration websites for team projects, Webflow provides an outstanding alternative over industry-standard solutions, such as the much older application we mentioned above that Adobe continues to sell.

Based on legacy technologies originally developed in San Francisco by Macromedia in 1997—roughly a quarter of a century ago at the time of this writing—Adobe Dreamweaver is a web development application that enables websites to be built offline. When the site is completed, Dreamweaver generates the HTML, JavaScript, CSS (cascading style sheets), and server-side scripting code that one will upload to a public HTML server, which will then power the website’s functionality.

By contrast, Webflow applies an updated and very different approach. Webflow was developed by a Y Combinator project in 2013 as a complete software-as-a-service web development, content management, and hosting solution. Running online within a web browser, the platform’s interface allows users to design, build, and host highly responsive, complex, custom websites using visual editing software that drives its own integrated content management system. As a designer works with the visual editor, Webflow automatically generates and updates the HTML, JavaScript, and CSS code in real time on Amazon Web Services’ Cloudfront servers hosted by the Fastly content delivery network (CDN).

Saying that Webflow “changed his life” after he switched from WordPress, le Roux recommends Webflow because it’s extremely fast for trained users to build Webflow websites. That’s because no coding is needed, and the platform never requires troublesome external plugins or application update installations. Webflow also offers precise control over special effects, such as the kinds of complex web animations that frequently appear on Apple’s websites, as this video demonstrates.

But finally, does Webflow offer a free plan? Yes, the company does. Unlike Adobe’s Dreamweaver which only offers a seven-day free trial like it’s still 1999, there’s no such limited trial offer at Webflow. The newer platform instead offers a 100 percent free starter package with a non-custom domain, 50 items in the content management system, and 1 GB of bandwidth—and for as long as the user will ever need.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark
Writer

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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