Xamarin – why we like it, why Microsoft bought it

Last month Microsoft acquired San Francisco based Xamarin, a platform provider for mobile app development. The news came as no surprise – both companies had been working closely together since 2014 when they jointly built Xamarin integration into Visual Studio and Azure. In fact, a common reaction was to ask why it had taken so long, many commentators seeing the two companies as a natural fit long before now.

In a sign of the times, Microsoft executive vice president Scott Guthrie broke the news in a blog post . Then after an initial flurry of headlines, (the Wall Street Journal for instance estimated the acquisition price at between $400 and $500 million), the Xamarin story quickly faded from view. Here at TEKenable however, we’re paying close attention and look forward to following Xamarin as it becomes part of Microsoft.

We’re very interested for three reasons, first because Xamarin is at the heart of our approach to mobile app development, second because buying Xamarin dovetails with Microsoft’s new strategic direction, namely the switch to a ‘cloud first – mobile first’ business model promoted by CEO, Satya Nadella and third because backing from Microsoft will provide a secure long term future for the Xamarin platform.

So for anyone who hasn’t heard of Xamarin it’s worth looking in a little more detail at the company, understanding what it does and exploring why Microsoft decided to buy it last month. Here’s our take on Xamarin.

Xamarin - a quick history

Xamarin was founded in 2012 however the roots of the company go all the way back to 2000 when Microsoft launched a beta version of the .NET framework.

Miguel De Icaza and Nat Friedman, two software engineers working at Ximian a company they had earlier co-founded, decided to set up the ‘Mono’ project. This project was aimed at implementing the .NET platform on Linux and Unix platforms. Work on Mono continued after Ximian was acquired by Novell in 2003 but was finally abandoned when Attachmate acquired the company in 2011.

De Icaza and Friedman subsequently quit Attachmate and set up Xamarin in 2011. They first launched Xamarin Mac, aimed at iOS developers and followed it with Xamarin 2.0. Xamarin 2.0 featured Xamarin Studio, a re-branding of its open-source development environment which integrated with Visual Studio, Microsoft’s IDE for the .NET Framework. This allowed developers to use Visual Studio for creating mobile applications for Android, iOS and Windows devices. Xamarin also created Xamarin Test Cloud, a tool for testing apps across thousands of devices in the cloud and .NET Mobility Scanner, a tool to show developers how much of their .NET code could run on other operating systems. In 2014 Xamarin launched Xamarin 3.0, which included Xamarin Forms. Xamarin Forms was designed for apps that require little platform-specific functionality and for situations where code sharing is more important than custom UI.

Xamarin - Why we like it

Here at TEKenable, we’re big fans of Xamarin. We like it because it allows a company like ours, with a strong focus on the Microsoft Stack, to code the business logic for a native app just once in C# but deploy it across both iOS and Android devices.

In our experience, developing the business logic is the biggest element in app development, often accounting for up to 75% of coding time. (Typically we spend the remaining 25% of the project in designing the user interface (UI). The cost savings in app development cost which we get from using Xamarin are then available to pass on to our client base, often making the difference between an affordable solution and one that is too expensive to implement.

As techies, we also like the way Xamarin lets us develop in C# because it avoids the need to learn specific languages for each mobile platform and it’s designed for large robust applications. Finally, Xamarin is a stable platform, it’s well documented and there are hundreds of sample apps online.

Xamarin - Why Microsoft bought it

Ever since Xamarin became popular with C#.NET developers, many people have speculated about an eventual Microsoft/Xamarin tie up.

However, as long as Microsoft remained focused on the Windows phone as a key part of its strategy the likelihood of a deal was low. Why encourage people to develop apps for a platform competing with your own? So instead both companies collaborated together making it easier for example for mobile developers to build native mobile apps for iOS and Android in Visual Studio.

Luckily for Xamarin, and unfortunately for Microsoft, the Windows phone wasn’t a success. Even the acquisition of Nokia couldn’t turn the situation around. As Ars Technica put it ‘instead of being the salvation of Microsoft’s mobile platform, the Nokia acquisition proved to be part of its undoing’. Today, Windows devices account for only about 2% of smartphones sold.

After Satya Nadella became CEO in 2014, and announced his ‘cloud first’ ‘mobile first’ strategy, Microsoft became more open to facilitating app development on rival platforms. Facing the inevitable, the company accepted it was better to have developers developing in the Microsoft stack and running those apps on rival devices rather than not using Microsoft technologies at all. Even more so when those app users were potential customers for Azure.

Collaboration between the two companies increased in 2014 when Microsoft open sourced large parts of .NET. This immediately made Xamarin much more compatible with .NET, and allowed it to focus on the supporting platforms and the tools to go with it—rather than re-implementing all of Microsoft’s own code.

The long awaited purchase of Xamarin finally happened last month. Microsoft now owns in our view the best cross platform mobile app development tool on the market. It inherits a customer base of more than 15,000 customers in 120 countries, including some of the largest companies in the world. In the United States for example, more than one hundred Fortune 500 companies use Xamarin. Perhaps most importantly, more than 1.3 million unique developers globally are now using a Microsoft platform for mobile app development. And Xamarin gains the massive financial support of Microsoft, currently sitting on $90 billion cash.

Where next for Xamarin?

Now that the acquisition is complete, expect Microsoft to start sharing its plans for Xamarin. We have been told to watch out for EVP Scott Guthries keynote address at the 2016 Build Conference this month and to check in on the upcoming Xamarin Evolve event in early April for fresh insights.

Here at TEKenable, we look forward to learning more and we hope Microsoft continues to build on the excellent platform developed by the Xamarin team. And while we are big fans of Xamarin, there is always room for improvement. One area we would like Microsoft to consider is the pricing model for Xamarin Test Cloud. We availed of this tool when it first launched but discontinued use when the pricing model became prohibitive.

These comments aside, we are excited for Xamarin. Provided Microsoft recognises the need to maintain an open and collaborative culture we think its future is bright. We hope to be using Xamarin for mobile app development for a long time to come.