Category Archives: open source

Google forks WebKit into Blink: what are the implications?

Yesterday Google announced that it is forking WebKit to create Blink, a new rendering engine to be used in its Chrome browser:

Chromium uses a different multi-process architecture than other WebKit-based browsers, and supporting multiple architectures over the years has led to increasing complexity for both the WebKit and Chromium projects. This has slowed down the collective pace of innovation – so today, we are introducing Blink, a new open source rendering engine based on WebKit.

Odd that not long ago we were debating the likelihood and merits of WebKit becoming the de facto standard for HTML. Now Google itself is arguing against such a thing:

… we believe that having multiple rendering engines—similar to having multiple browsers—will spur innovation and over time improve the health of the entire open web ecosystem.

Together with the announcement from Mozilla and Samsung of a new Android browser which, one assumes, may become the default browser on Samsung Android phones, there is now significant diversity/competition/fragmentation in the browser market (if you can call it a market when everything is free).

The stated reason for the split concerns multi-process architecture, with claims that Google was unwilling to assist with integrating Chromium’s multi-process code into WebKit:

Before we wrote a single line of what would become WebKit2 we directly asked Google folks if they would be willing to contribute their multiprocess support back to WebKit, so that we could build on it. They said no.

At that point, our choices were to do a hostile fork of Chromium into the WebKit tree, write our own process model, or live with being single-process forever. (At the time, there wasn’t really an API-stable layer of the Chromium stack that packaged the process support.)

Writing our own seemed like the least bad approach.

Or maybe it was the other way around and Apple wanted to increase its control over WebKit and optimize it for the OSX and iOS rather than for multiple platforms (which would be the Apple way).

It matters little. Either way, it is unsurprising that Apple and Google find it difficult to cooperate when Android is the biggest threat to the iPhone and iPad.

The new reality is that WebKit, instead of being a de facto standard for the Web, will now be primarily an Apple rendering engine. Chrome/Chromium will be all Google, making it less attractive for others to adopt.

That said, several third parties have already adopted Chromium, thanks to the attractions of the Chromium Embedded Framework which makes it easy to use the engine in other projects. This includes Opera, which is now a Blink partner, and Adobe, which uses Chromium for its Brackets code editor and associated products in the Adobe Edge family.

The benefit of Blink is that diverse implementations promote the importance of standards. The risk of Blink is that if Google further increases the market share of Chrome, on desktop and mobile, to the point where it dominates, then it is in a strong position to dictate de-facto standards according to its own preferences, as suggested by this cynical take on the news.

The browser wars are back.

Xamarin 2.0 and Xamarin Studio announced, build for OSX, iOS and Android with C#

Xamarin has announced significant updates to its developer platform. Xamarin is the company formed around 18 months ago, when Novell discontinued its investment in Mono, a cross-platform implementation of C# and the .NET Framework. Its focus is on mobile platforms, in particular iOS and Android, though there is also support for the Mac. On Windows and Windows Phone, the presumption is that developers will continue to use Microsoft’s .NET Framework.

“If you look at what you can develop with C#, there’s about 1.2 billion Windows machines out there, but there’s now about a billion Android and iOS devices. Together we can make C# a universal language for application development and reach 2.2 billion devices,” Xamarin co-founder and CEO Nat Friedman told me.

“There’s a wonderful built-in audience of C# developers, millions of them, who need a bridge to mobile. We can help them take their existing skills and tools, and even code they’ve already written, and bring them to mainstream mobile platforms like iOS and Android.”

The key announcements:

  • Xamarin Studio is  an updated version of MonoDevelop, the Mono IDE. It runs on Mac and Windows.#
  • You can now develop iOS apps in Visual Studio for the first time
  • MonoTouch, the framework for iOS, has been renamed Xamarin.iOS
  • Mono for Android is now called Xamarin.Android
  • A new component store has pre-built components for download, some free, some commercial.
  • Xamarin now offers a free Starter edition, and pricing plans for independent developers, smaller businesses, and enterprises. Indie is $299 per platform per year, Business is $999 per platform/year, and Enterprise $1800 platform/year.

The Starter edition is not much use. It has a limited app size, and even the sample project I downloaded, an Employee Directory, exceeded that size and I had to register for a trial.

Xamarin’s philosophy is to share non-visual code, but to create a user interface that is native for each platform. This is a compromise in terms of the effort involved in supporting multiple platforms, but ensures a native experience on each device. “That’s fundamental to our platform,” says Friedman. “We tell our developers to separate the UI layer from the rest of the app. That allows them to share all the non-UI code across platforms, but to deliver a fully native UI, even though the whole app is written in C#. That’s what users demand now, people want native experiences.”

“We’ve been building tools that essentially project the underlying iOS APIs or Java [Android] APIs into C#”, explains co-founder Miguel de Icaza. “What it means is that people need to build a new UI for each platform.” He adds that Microsoft platform developers should be used to this, as Microsoft itself has several similar but incompatible .NET platforms. “There’s the one on Silverlight, the one on WPF, the one on Windows RT, and the one on the phone, it’s four,” he says. “Developers have had to resort to putting their logic into shared libraries, and build a per-platform UI. We’re reusing that knowledge.”

The ability to develop for iOS in Visual Studio is new. “It’s our most-requested feature of all time.” said Friedman.

I downloaded Xamarin Studio, which in my case was around 1.3GB including an updated Android SDK.

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The IDE itself is clean and fast, and very much code-centric. It lacks the bloat of Visual Studio, though you will miss many of the features of Microsoft’s IDE.

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I build the sample Employee Directory app and deployed it to an Android emulator which I use for Nexus 7 development. Deploying the runtime components took a long time, but after waiting patiently the app launched successfully.

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If you want to do iOS development you will need a Mac of course. Although you can code on Windows, if you then the code is pushed over the the Mac side for compilation and debugging. In order to use Visual Studio, one option is to run Windows in a virtual machine on a Mac, as I have done with reasonable success using Embarcadero’s cross-platform tools.

Xamarin says it is growing fast. There have been 230,000 downloads of its tools, increasing by around 700 per day, and over 12,000 paying customers.

Despite Xamarin’s roots in the open source world (and Mono is still open source), a quick look at the pricing table shows that this is a fully commercial offering and priced accordingly. Presuming customers keep on subscribing, that is a good thing, ensuring the future of the platform; but it is not so good for the smallest developers who might otherwise give it a try.

Browser monoculture draws nearer as Opera adopts WebKit, Google Chromium

Browser company Opera is abandoning development of its own browser engine and adopting WebKit.

To provide a leading browser on Android and iOS, this year Opera will make a gradual transition to the WebKit engine, as well as Chromium, for most of its upcoming versions of browsers for smartphones and computers.

Note that Opera is not only adopting WebKit but also the Google-sponsored Chromium engine, which is the open source portion of the Google Chrome browser.

What are the implications?

The obvious one, from Opera’s perspective, is that the work involved in keeping a browser engine up to date is large and the benefit, small, given that WebKit and Chromium are both capable and also close to de facto standards in mobile.

This last point is key though. If everyone uses WebKit, then instead of the W3C being the authority on which web standards are supported, then the WebKit community becomes that authority. In the case of Chromium, that means Google in particular.

On the desktop Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox both have substantial market share, but in mobile both iOS and Android, which dominate, use WebKit-derived browsers. BlackBerry is also using WebKit in its new BlackBerry 10 OS.

There is already a debate about web pages and applications which make use of webkit-specific tags, which often implies a degraded experience for users of other browsers, even if those other browsers support the same features. A year agao, Daniel Glazman, co-chairman of the W3C CSS working group, wrote a strongly-worded post on this issue:

Without your help, without a strong reaction, this can lead to one thing only and we’re dangerously not far from there: other browsers will start supporting/implementing themselves the -webkit-* prefix, turning one single implementation into a new world-wide standard. It will turn a market share into a de facto standard, a single implementation into a world-wide monopoly. Again. It will kill our standardization process. That’s not a question of if, that’s a question of when.

Therefore, Opera’s decision is probably bad for open web standards; though web developers may not mind since one fewer browser variation to worry about makes their life easier.

People commonly raise the spectre of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 and the way it effectively froze web standards for several years, thanks to its dominance. Might WebKit’s dominance repeat this? It is doubtful, since the IE6 problem would not have been so great, except that Microsoft decided it would rather promote its own platform (Windows) rather than the web platform. The WebKit community will not do that.

On the other hand, for rivals like Microsoft and Mozilla this is a concern. Something as important as web standards should ideally be vendor-neutral, so that big companies do not use standards as a means of promoting their own platforms and making other platforms work less well. In practice, it is rare that standards are truly vendor-neutral; the big vendors dominate standards groups like the W3C for exactly this reason. That said, it would be true to say that the W3C is more vendor-neutral than WebKit or Chromium.

Leaving all that aside, another question is what value Opera can add if it is building on the same core as Google and Apple. That is a matter I hope to clarify at the Mobile World Congress later this month.

Not just a four-horse race: three new mobile operating systems joining the fray

Some have declared the mobile OS battle over, won by Apple and Google Android between them. Microsoft and RIM Blackberry will fight it out for third and fourth place.

Maybe, but I doubt it will be so simple. There are not one, not two, but three further open source mobile operating systems which have significant backing.

Tizen is supported by companies including Intel, Samsung, Orange, Vodafone, Huawei, and NTT Docomo, and managed by the Linux Foundation.

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It is based on what used to be MeeGo (which itself came out of Intel Moblin, Nokia Maemo and so on). Tizen is intended to work on smartphones, tablets, and in embedded devices such as TVs and in-vehicle entertainment.

Firefox OS is a new project from Mozilla, whose Firefox browser is under threat from Webkit-based browsers such as Google Chrome.

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Mozilla promises that:

Using HTML5 and the new Mozilla-proposed standard APIs, developers everywhere will be able to create amazing experiences and apps. Developers will no longer need to learn and develop against platform-specific native APIs.

Ubuntu also offers a mobile OS, along with an interesting add-on that lets you run Ubuntu desktop from smartphone when docked (this can also be added to Android smartphones).

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All will be interesting to watch. Tizen is particularly interesting. Samsung is the largest Android vendor and the largest smartphone vendor. While this is currently a win for Android, it is possible that Samsung may want to steer its customers towards a non-Google operating system in future.

Equally, logic says that the open source world would be better getting behind a single Android alternative, rather than three.

LocationTech: a new Eclipse working group for location technologies

The Eclipse Foundation has announced a new working group, called LocationTech.

What is it? There is only one project currently, called LocationTech Technology.

Here is what it covers:

LTT projects provide artifacts such as libraries, user interfaces, and methodology logic that enable location aware applications and services. The nature of this work is scoped as follows:

  • Developing and delivering location aware services for web, mobile, and desktop based systems.
  • Storage, exchange, processing, and interpretation of massive data volumes with a component of spatial information
  • Apply Model based design in the context of geospatial information systems, building information modeling, and computer aided design
  • Aggregating and relating data from diverse sources including a spatial component. e.g. Analytics, Geospatial Business Intelligence, Geocoding, Routing
  • The implementation of generally applicable geospatial standards (e.g., Open Geospatial Consortium, ISO TC211, SQL MM, etc.)

The group is sponsored by IBM, Oracle, OpenGeo and Actuate.

Projects hosted at LocationTech benefit from a range of services, including git code repository, bugzilla bug tracking, hudson continuous integration, apache and drupal for a project dashboard, and “intellectual property services” covering licensing and related areas.

LocationTech is seeking involvement from OpenStreetMap (discussed here) and MapBox, among others.

Names not on the list of sponsors include Google and Nokia. Is this, perhaps, an effort to support location-based development in a manner that does not include a dependency on Google?

Microsoft’s Visual Studio and Team Foundation Server get Git integration

Microsoft has announced Git integration in both the Visual Studio IDE and the Team Foundation Service hosted source code management system. According to Technical Fellow Brian Harry:

1. Team Foundation Server will host Git repositories – and more concretely, Team Foundation Service has support for hosting Git repositories starting today.

2. Visual Studio will have Git support – and concretely, we released a CTP of a VSIX plugin for the Visual Studio 2012 Update 2 CTP today.

Git is an open source version control system originally designed by Linus Torvalds to support the development of the Linux operating system. It is a distributed version control system, which means every working directory is itself a full repository, enabling easy forking and offline work.

Team Foundation Service is a version of Team Foundation Server hosted by Microsoft.

Git integration was also recently added to Perforce, another version control system, in the form of the Perforce Git Fusion add-in, emphasising the fact that Git is now a mainstream, enterprise revision control system.

Google fights Android fragmentation with new SDK terms

Google has revised the terms of the Android SDK license agreement so that users must now agree not to fragment Android by deriving other SDKs from Google’s official offering. In fact, you now have to agree not to fragment Android in any way as a condition of using the Android SDK.

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The key clauses seem to be these (I write as a non-lawyer):

3.2 You agree that Google or third parties own all legal right, title and interest in and to the SDK, including any Intellectual Property Rights that subsist in the SDK. "Intellectual Property Rights" means any and all rights under patent law, copyright law, trade secret law, trademark law, and any and all other proprietary rights. Google reserves all rights not expressly granted to you.

3.3 You may not use the SDK for any purpose not expressly permitted by this License Agreement. Except to the extent required by applicable third party licenses, you may not: (a) copy (except for backup purposes), modify, adapt, redistribute, decompile, reverse engineer, disassemble, or create derivative works of the SDK or any part of the SDK; or (b) load any part of the SDK onto a mobile handset or any other hardware device except a personal computer, combine any part of the SDK with other software, or distribute any software or device incorporating a part of the SDK.

3.4 You agree that you will not take any actions that may cause or result in the fragmentation of Android, including but not limited to distributing, participating in the creation of, or promoting in any way a software development kit derived from the SDK.

How much of this is new? Here are the terms as stored on my hard drive:

3.2 You agree that Google or third parties own all legal right, title and interest in and to the SDK, including any Intellectual Property Rights that subsist in the SDK. "Intellectual Property Rights" means any and all rights under patent law, copyright law, trade secret law, trademark law, and any and all other proprietary rights. Google reserves all rights not expressly granted to you.

3.3 Except to the extent required by applicable third party licenses, you may not copy (except for backup purposes), modify, adapt, redistribute, decompile, reverse engineer, disassemble, or create derivative works of the SDK or any part of the SDK. Except to the extent required by applicable third party licenses, you may not load any part of the SDK onto a mobile handset or any other hardware device except a personal computer, combine any part of the SDK with other software, or distribute any software or device incorporating a part of the SDK.

The clause 3.4 specifically concerning fragmentation is new, but the clause 3.3 forbidding the creation of derivative works is not new. When this was first added is an interesting question and please comment if you know.

Note that the Android SDK depends on the Java Development Kit, and that Google’s use of Java in Android was the subject of unsuccessful litigation from Oracle.

Free software advocate Torsten Grote has posted about the move here and says:

This situation is far from perfect for software freedom. Developing Android Apps in freedom is only possible as soon as the Replicant developers catch up. Looks like Android stops being a Free Software friendly platform.

Replicant is a free version of the Android software stack including an SDK, though of course it will not be possible to include new parts of the SDK only available under the non-free license.

Embarcadero launches C++ Builder XE3: first built on Clang

Embarcadero has released C++ Builder XE3, the first version built on the open source clang front end for the LLVM compiler. This has enabled the product to support many new features, including extensive C++ 11 support and a 64-bit compiler.

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While it is a shame that the old Borland C/C++ Compiler is no more, it makes sense for Embarcadero to bring its VCL (Visual Component Library) and FireMonkey framework to Clang rather than continuing to work on its own compiler.

The other big change is cross-platform support. Through FireMonkey, C++ Builder XE3 supports Windows (including Windows 8) and Mac OS X, with iOS and Android promised for 2013.

Although Windows 8 is supported on the desktop, there is no official support for the Windows Runtime (Windows Store apps). Instead, Embarcadero has a curious application framework called Metropolis which fakes the Windows 8 style but with desktop applications, as if the Windows 8 world were not already sufficiently confusing.

The big question is how compatible VCL applications created for earlier versions of C++ Builder are with the XE3 release. With a new compiler and major changes to the VCL in order to support the new compiler, you might expect some issues.

“That’s what we’ve been spending all of our time on,” Embarcadero VP Michael Swindell told me. “This is fully compatible with all our previous C++ dialects. We’ve completely re-engineered the C++ front end but it’s engineered to be compatible with C++ Builder applications and Borland C++ applications.”

I would rather hear that from developers though, rather than from Embarcadero.

Although C++ Builder is a cross-platform compiler, it only runs on Windows. A common scenario is to run in Windows emulation on a Mac, using VMware Fusion or Parallels.

Similar changes are on the way for Delphi, which uses the same VCL and FireMonkey frameworks but with the Delphi language based on Object Pascal.

Note that the new Clang-based compiler is 64-bit only. You are meant to continue using the old Borland compiler for 32-bit, making it hard to maintain a single code base for both.

ThoughtWorks bemoans excessive software complexity, advocates small, focused services

ThoughtWorks has released its latest Technology Radar, an opinionated analysis of software development trends.

Things the folk at ThoughtWorks like include automated build and deployment, essential for Continuous delivery; NOSQL database managers especially Neo4j; mobile-first development; the AppCode IDE for Apple’s Objective-C; the Graphite realtime graphing tool for creating dashboards; Clojure and Scala for programming.

I meet some of the ThoughtWorks team at developer conferences from time to time, and generally find them smart and though-provoking to talk to. They must be the despair of the big enterprise software vendors, with a liking for open source and an aversion to heavyweight high-maintenance systems.

This remark particularly caught my eye:

Simple architectures—Simple continues to gain traction, including both techniques for building and composing applications, as well as infrastructure-based techniques to enable simple deployment, failover and recovery. This theme is a recurring one for us, but we have not yet seen the usage shifts we believe are necessary.

I asked consultant James Lewis and practice lead Sam Newman to expand on that. Why do we continue to choose complexity over simplicity?

“A lot of people like to stay inside their big box, and don’t understand the complexities that then creates,” said Newman. “There’s a lack of critical thought given to how services talk to each other. A lot of them are driven by whatever the vendor says you do. Java makes RMI very easy. [Microsoft] .NET makes binding to WSDL [SOAP] schemas very easy. All these tools make bad things very easy to do.

“When you start talking to organisations about smaller services that are focused on doing one thing well, they have the horror associated with now having more than one box to manage and operate. So it’s hard to talk about moving from one big monolithic complicated box that is hard to change, to lots of little boxes, without also having conversations with those clients about how they get better at managing multiple services.

“Netflix has 300 services. Each service runs on at least six machines. They are very good at deploying those services. Yet they are not an overly complicated domain compared to some of our clients.”

“Amazon were talking about this in 2004,” adds Lewis, “the idea that you join up development of these small, simple applications with the operational control, so the same people who build them are also the people who run them. Now that we’re seeing both private and public clouds, and the ability to spin up machines becoming more and more prevalent, its starting to become more attractive.”

This is a consistent theme from ThoughtWorks. Break up complex solutions into many small services, think about how they talk to each other (with REST and HTTP favoured), and think about the infrastructure and how to automate it as well as the software itself.

“In many organisations these conversations are happening,” Newman told me. “I go to clients now, and they talk about the Enterprise Service Bus as being something they’d love to get rid of if they only knew how. Five to ten years ago, to even mention the Enterprise Service Bus as being a problem, they’d look at you with daggers in their eyes.”

“It’s almost like we’re now able to fulfil the promise of service orientation,” says Lewis. “It needed these additional practices, around things like automated deployment, automated rollback, and an understanding that people and process are tied intrinsically with it.”

Another issue, claims Lewis, is that software architects simply get out of touch with best practice.

“Most architects who build big systems are quite a long way from their codebases. They sit in rooms talking to other architects. They might have last written a line of code five or ten years ago. What they do is to design systems as they would have done ten years ago. People do get divorced from the latest trends and perpetuate less effective ways of doing things.”

Finally, here’s something for the Microsoft platform people who read this site. ThoughtWorks is not altogether averse to Microsoft and mentions the Azure cloud platform as something which is becoming interesting. But Windows Phone:

Despite a promising start to Windows Phone, a well thought-out user interface, and probably the best development experience of any mobile platform, we have seen several stumbles in the execution of the platform strategy by Microsoft and its partners. This makes us less optimistic about the future of the platform than we were in the last radar.

Translation: nice mobile platform, but nobody’s buying it. Then again, on Monday next week Windows Phone 8 will be properly unveiled. Still hope?

How Adobe turned on a pin to embrace the web (and Google)

Adobe’s Create the Web world tour – which came to London yesterday – is in the public unveiling of of Adobe’s new wave of tools, the first since it turned away from Flash and towards open web standard, hardly a year ago.

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Michael Chaize is a developer evangelist at Adobe. I asked him when it became clear to him personally that Adobe was no longer a Flash platform company.

“The main shift happened November last year [2011]” he told me. “It happened when we, for the Flash part, decided to just focus on video games and premium video, and invest in HTML tooling and specifications with a team of engineers. It was synced with the decision to stop developing Flash in mobile just to focus on apps with Adobe AIR.

“Now we are almost a year later, and Create the Web is an opportunity to showcase the work that has been done. All the product that have been launched, the Edge tools and service, just started in November of last year.”

The timing was confirmed by Adam Lehman, product manager for Edge Code, a tool built on Bracket, which is an open source project created by Adobe to provide a lightweight, code-centric editor for HTML 5 technologies. I asked him when work on Brackets started. Research started in mid-2011, he said, but “we got the team together in December 2011 and started coding.”

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Adam Lehman

The Edge tools are intended as focused, lightweight product each targeting a specific small part of web design, in contrast to typical Creative Suite products such as Dreamweaver which encompass a large area of functionality; a valid approach but one which inevitably leads to huge tools that take an age to load and a lifetime to learn. Edge is also being used as a not-to-subtle way to promote Adobe’s subscription-based Creative Cloud, since the tools are only available by that route. As a further sweetener, you can get some of the tools as part of the free subscription tier.

It is remarkable that Adobe has navigated the difficult transition from Flash to HTML, and the difficult transition from shrink-wrap to subscription, with so little pain.

That said, perhaps the transition from Flash to HTML is not as profound as it first appears. The Flash runtime was always free, while Adobe made its money from design tools, and as the web become more capable, designing for the Web looks increasingly similar to designing for Flash.

Even the community is the same. “When it deals with expressive web, motion design, we feel that the Flash community can reuse their skills,” said Chaize.  “Being a Flash developer is not just about the language, it’s a knowledge, it’s a culture. Agencies tell me, ‘When I need to hire a motion designer for HTML, I hire a Flash guy.’

That said, HTML 5 is still inferior to Flash in some respects. I watched a slightly jerky animation showing off HTML 5 capabilities and could not help thinking that it would run more smoothly in Flash (of course it was all preview software). It will get there though. This is why Adobe is working to bring specifications like CSS shaders and CSS regions to the official standards.

There is another thing I noticed at Create the Web, which is the extent to which Adobe’s new tools are built on Google’s platform. Many of the Edge tools are made with the Chrome Embedded Framework; the browser used for demonstrations is Chrome Canary, a preview build implementing the newest standards, and if you look at the code you see abundant use of the WebKit prefix which designates features currently specific to the WebKit browser engine used by Apple, Google and others. There is also extensive use of WebGL, popular with designer but contentious because some browser vendors consider it a security risk and it is not an official web standard.

Lehman insists that there is no intention to go down a Google-specific route. “It was more of a technology stack we went with,” he says, explaining that the intent for Brackets is that it will one day run in the browser, in which case it will have to support Mozilla, Opera and Microsoft browsers as well.

The reason for adopting so much Google stuff is partly the excellent fit with what Adobe needed, and partly the low friction. “We didn’t have to go to a meeting, it was just published” said Lehman, referring to the Chromium Embedded Framework which let you run HTML5 applications on the desktop.

Brackets looks great, has real community adoption already, and Adobe has interesting plan for its future. Along with browser hosting, Lehman talks about proper debugging support with breakpoint, JavaScript macros, an embedded node.js engine, and more.

When Apple rejected Flash in iOS it put Adobe in a difficult spot – another reason for the company’s warmth towards Google and Android – but since then the transition has been remarkable.