Flex Builder for Linux on hold: another sign of financial stress at Adobe?

On 21st April Adobe’s Ben Forta told a user group that Flex Builder 3 for Linux is on hold, citing lack of requisition, which is corp-speak for lack of demand.

Note that the Flex SDK does run on Linux. It is just the official IDE that is in question.

Linux is a free operating system, and this could be evidence that users of a free OS are less likely to purchase software than users of a paid-for OS. Or it could simply reflect poor market share for Linux outside servers. Even if it has just hit 1%, as hitslink reports, it is still barely more than 10% of the Mac share and a little over 1% of the Windows share. Some of those Linux machines will also be netbooks – secondary systems for users with a Windows or Mac for serious work such as design and development.

Nevertheless, I suspect there is more to it than that. I suspect Adobe would like to support Linux, because it wants to portray Flex as an open platform – the SDK is open source, though managed by Adobe, but the runtime engine is closed-source and proprietary. This may be another sign of Adobe’s financial stress. The company reported reduced quarter-on-quarter revenue for the the 3 months ending February 2009, and has been cutting staff numbers.

The backdrop to this, in contrast, is that Adobe is having great success with its Flash platform. There is no sign of Microsoft’s Silverlight denting the popularity of Flash on web sites, either for applets or media streaming.

The recession then? Partly; but this is also about Adobe’s business model. Adobe does not break out its figures in detail as far as I know: the last financial statement merely shows that its revenue is nearly 95% from product sales, the rest being services and support. Still, I’d guess that the largest component of its product sales must be Creative Suite. In other words, its business model is based on selling tools and giving away runtimes. When 47 million people watch Susan Boyle on YouTube, Adobe doesn’t make a penny, even though they are almost all using Flash to do so.

The tools market is a difficult one for various reasons, including competition from free products and the fact that the number of people needing development or design tools is always much smaller than the number needing runtimes. In a recession, deferring a tools upgrade is a obvious way for businesses to save money. Remaining primarily a tools company is a limit to Adobe’s growth and ultimately its profitability.

This is of concern to all Flash platform users. Adobe has proved to date a good steward of the technology. Some of us would like the balance of proprietary vs open tilted further towards open, but I doubt many would welcome a takeover or merger such as we have seen with Sun and Oracle (and there are a few parallels there).

There would also be many cries of “foul” if Adobe sought to further monetize Flash by starting to sell, say, a premium version of the Flash runtime.

Adobe is still a profitable company, and maybe when the economy recovers all this stress will be forgotten. Still, I’d guess that long-term Adobe will want to shift away from its dependency on sales of tools; and how and what it does to achieve that will have a big influence on the future of its RIA (Rich Internet Application) platform.