cs2

Adobe CS2 free-for-all? Not quite…and what it really means

Adobe Creative Suite 2 graphic

Bargain hunters went nuts and hammered Adobe download servers over reports that Adobe Creative Suite 2 is supposedly available for a free download. This isn’t the whole story; the facts have been somewhat oversimplified by the “telephone game” nature of passing along information on the Internet. The story is clearer with a little more context.

Adobe Creative Suite requires online activation in order to function. Adobe made a decision to shut down the activation server for Creative Suite 2, which was released in 2005. Shutting down the activation server means that if any of the remaining CS2 users needed to reinstall their software, the software would not be able to activate. Adobe chose to do the right thing for those users: They made it possible for them to keep using the software by providing replacement downloads that won’t look for an activation server.

It’s not meant for everybody

What Adobe wanted to do is provide a simple way for legitimate CS2 users to continue using their software. But whether it was due to lack of clarity on the original Adobe CS2 download page or the immense desire of users to get free software that has a high perceived value, the message being spread around the Internet is that CS2 is free to all. But it isn’t, and Adobe has clarified its language (updated mid-2013) in the Adobe tech note Error: Activation Server Unavailable | CS2, Acrobat 7, Audition 3 (look under How to Install, step 2):

“You can use the serial numbers provided as a part of the download only if you legitimately purchased CS2, CS2 applications, Acrobat 7, or Audition 3.”

In other words, you are not any more (or less) entitled to use CS2 than you ever were. If you didn’t have a license then, you don’t now. But if you still depend on CS2 for mission-critical tasks today, Adobe has removed the activation requirement for the license you have, and that’s a net plus. If you do have a valid CS2 license you can grab the activation-free software from the Adobe CS2 downloads page.

If there’s no technical barrier that stops you from using this software if you don’t have a valid license for it, should you use it anyway? That’s an interesting moral decision. Many of us express frustration, or maybe even feel a little offended, when companies employ copy protection/DRM in a way that seems to assume that we can’t be trusted. But if you decide to act against the terms of a license because there’s no technical barrier to stop you, all you’ve done is prove that the content companies are right.

Would you benefit from running CS2 today?

Whether you’re frantically trying to snag your free download or disappointed that you don’t actually qualify from a legal point of view, it’s worth stepping back for a second to think about the implications of using CS2 today:

  • What’s your hardware? The biggest benefit of being able to run CS2 is for users with older computers. As I write this (in 2013), CS2 is now 8 years old. On the Windows side it isn’t optimized for Windows 7 or later. But the real problem is on the Mac side. CS2 was written for the processor that powered Macs in 2005: The PowerPC. But soon after, Apple migrated all Mac hardware to Intel processors, and the last version of OS X that can run PowerPC software is OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. But it’s been many years since any new Macs could run 10.6, so new and recent Macs will not run or install CS2 at all. So if you’ve got an up-to-date Mac you can’t use CS2; compatibility with Intel Macs started with CS3. On the other hand, those still running old PowerMac G5 towers will be happy that they can still run CS2.
  • What’s your workflow? Having access to CS2 may be useful if your main workflows are centered around older media, such as traditional prepress, pre-HTML5, and standard-definition video. But if your work depends on keeping up with today’s emerging media such as HD and DSLR video, output to online streaming video, the latest camera raw formats, and content for mobile devices such as eBooks and responsive web sites, your business would benefit more from using a current version.
  • Can you use CS2 to get  an upgrade discount? Some have asked whether having a CS2 serial number would make you eligible for upgrade discounts. No, it would not. [At the time this article was originally written in 2013], upgrade discounts for the current version (CS6) are available to registered users of the previous version (CS5). It used to be that you could upgrade from the last two previous versions, but even that wouldn’t reach far back enough to make CS2 useful to obtain an upgrade discount.
  • How good is Photoshop CS2? Photoshop CS2 is quite powerful, and if it does what you need then it’s great. But it lacks recent GPU acceleration support, support for recent raw formats, HDR and panorama tools, profile-based lens correction, 3D, video editing, better selection and masking tools, the entire content-aware feature set, Lightroom integration, and more. (For a list of the many changes since CS2, see the Photoshop version history on Wikipedia.) Photoshop CS2 is quite suitable for a computer of the same era, but like the rest of CS2 it won’t make the best use of current hardware.

In the end, having access to CS2 is most valuable to users who need to keep CS2 running on aging hardware and have not already moved up to a more recent version. There are not a lot of those users left, but they are exactly the users Adobe wanted to support with the new builds. If your business is built on computers, cameras, and other equipment that are a lot newer than 2005, it makes sense that the software you use should be optimized for the up-to-date tools you use. So if you feel you’re being excluded from a deal by not being eligible for a free copy of CS2, keep in mind that CS2 is not the most competitive set of tools for today’s media and hardware.

Is this a good sign for the future of old activated software?

On the whole, the Adobe move is good news. Since activation became standard procedure at companies like Microsoft and Adobe, users have wondered how long they can count on activation servers functioning reliably, and what happens if companies stop supporting activated software. Adobe has now set a precedent of letting old activation-based software continue to function without needing activation, and we can all hope that remains true in the future…at least for perpetual licenses.

(The reason I mention perpetual licenses is because Adobe Creative Cloud subscription licenses work differently. Adobe has made it clear that Creative Cloud software stops working if you stop paying the monthly fee, and that when a new version of Creative Cloud-based software comes out the old version will continue to work for only one more year.) [Update: That policy has changed over time. For a while, Creative Cloud members had access to versions as far back as CS6. In 2019, Adobe announced that Creative Cloud members will have access to the two most recent versions of the software.]