SAN FRANCISCO—In perhaps the biggest developer news of the day at its Build 2016 conference here, Microsoft announced it is open-sourcing its recently acquired Xamarin software development kit, runtime, libraries and command line tools as part of the .NET Foundation in the coming months.
Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of the Cloud and Enterprise Group, also said Microsoft will make the Xamarin cross-platform mobile application development software available for free as part of Visual Studio. Microsoft announced plans to acquire Xamarin last month. Xamarin provides a popular platform that enables developers to build mobile applications using C# and deliver native mobile app experiences on iOS, Android and Windows devices.
In taking the stage to demonstrate new integrated capabilities of Xamarin in Visual Studio, Miguel de Icaza, co-founder of Xamarin, said he was glad to be finally working for Microsoft after having the longest job interview of his life—referring to the fact that Microsoft has long sought to hire de Icaza, though not necessarily the entire company.
“The Xamarin news is big,” said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “What it does is completes the circle where Microsoft can claim it is ‘Switzerland’ related to app development. If developers and enterprises buy into a heterogeneous environment with Windows, iOS and Android, then Xamarin makes sense. And if Xamarin makes sense then why not use Azure services for things like natural language speech, object recognition, cognitive, Office 365, etc.? This is a big play that, if successful, would make Microsoft a mobile player without a mobile OS. Fascinating.”
Indeed, “The Xamarin announcement was far and away the biggest thing today,” said Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst with Forrester Research.
What this move also does is helps to give Microsoft the compelling end-to-end developer story the company has been chasing for years, said Tim Huckaby, founder and chairman of InterKnowlogy, a Microsoft partner and consultancy. But it’s still not completely finished or totally integrated, he noted.
“Today, we made targeting every device and platform a lot easier by making Xamarin available to every Visual Studio developer for free, including the free Visual Studio Community Edition,” Guthrie said in a blog post. “We are also making available a free Xamarin Studio Community Edition for OS X. Developers worldwide can now easily create apps using an end-to-end mobile development solution—joining companies like Slack, Pinterest, Alaska Airlines and more. To enable even more choice and flexibility for developers, we announced a commitment to open source Xamarin’s runtime, libraries and command line tools as part of the .NET Foundation. Both the Xamarin SDK and Mono will be available under the MIT License.”
In addition, Xamarin capabilities and services will also be added to Microsoft DevOps and enterprise development tools offerings, providing a comprehensive solution that spans every phase of the mobile development cycle, he said.
Moreover, with the combination of Xamarin and Azure App Service for rich mobile back ends, Microsoft is helping developers embrace the next generation of app development—but it’s only one piece of the puzzle, Guthrie said. Developers also need to take advantage of the data explosion to build more intelligent, predictive apps, while ensuring those apps stay connected across a growing number of devices.
Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said he believes Microsoft’s decision to open source the SDK and to include Xamarin in Visual Studio has two goals.
“The first is to more strongly identify Azure as a cloud for developing cross platform apps,” he said. “That’s commercially important for both Microsoft and its developer partners. The other issue is that Microsoft’s move should ensure far broader adoption of Xamarin which was prohibitively expensive for smaller developers. More is better so far as developers go with Microsoft. Plus, increasing the number of developers and related apps should increase momentum around Xamarin. In essence, Microsoft apparently regarded the purchase of Xamarin as a literal, multi dimensional investment in its own and its developer partners’ future. Open sourcing and freely including the platform in Visual Studio is an act of both generosity and self-preservation.”
To this, Thomas Murphy, an analyst with Gartner, added, “I think this Xamarin move is big along with work Microsoft has been doing to connect again with high school and college age developers/students. The ability to develop iOS apps for free and that those apps can run other places easily is very positive. The question is how this benefits Microsoft—i.e. where is the revenue: office 365 and services on Azure? So bigger things in some ways are the APIs on Azure for voice, Cortana, analytics. Also, the ability to aid with migrations from AWS. Again a good mix of future and now.”
Microsoft Makes Xamarin Free in Visual Studio, Open-Sources SDK
According to Todd Anglin, chief evangelist for Progress Software, a Microsoft partner and owner of Telerik, which develops tools for the Microsoft developer ecosystem, the Xamarin move is a major milestone for .NET developers, as Xamarin has long been a popular solution for building mobile apps in the .NET community due to its use of C#. With Microsoft now directly involved, these C# developers can likely expect many of the “rough edges” on Xamarin’s solution to improve, and an even better experience in Visual Studio, he said.
However, more broadly, this does not change a lot on the mobile app dev landscape, Anglin maintains. “There are still a lot of developers that do not have a preference for C# or Visual Studio, so other solutions, like NativeScript from Telerik or React Native from Facebook, will continue to serve the even larger non-.NET developer ecosystems. Xamarin will, finally, join the ranks as a peer open source option among the leading choice for developers that want to build cross-platform, native mobile apps.”
Yet, Anglin acknowledges this is a great move for .NET developers. “In many ways, this is a long overdue move by Microsoft. It was heavily expected that Microsoft would acquire Xamarin more than a year ago, so this final outcome was inevitable, and it ensures Xamarin technology won’t disappear anytime soon,” he said.
Moreover, “Open-source is eating the world, right,” Anglin added. “An open sourced Xamarin reduces the barriers to adoption for companies concerned about making big bets on ‘proprietary,’ closed source runtimes. After the recent experiences with Silverlight and Flash, where the platform vendors abandoned their proprietary technology, companies have been more gun shy about adopting ‘closed’ platforms. An open Xamarin alleviates some of that concern. Of course, open source can be in name only if the only contributors/maintainers come from one place. The challenge with a big project like Xamarin that has been closed for so long is now building a real, vibrant open source community around their mature technology stack. Microsoft has been building this muscle for a while, so that will help the transition, but it will take time for Xamarin to really transition to an effective open source model,” Anglin maintains.
Or will it?
Rob Enderle, founder of the Enderle Group, said Microsoft’s Xamarin play showcases that they are very serious about getting developers back which was initially their core demographic.
“The long term irony is that Steve Ballmer Microsoft’s past CEO was famous for a talk he did screaming developers, developers, developers—emphasizing how important they were and then losing most of them when he became CEO,” he said. “[Satya] Nadella [Microsoft’s current CEO] clearly wants these developers back and is using Microsoft’s new found capability to develop on all major platforms simultaneously as a major inducement towards making this happen. Historically developers were one of Microsoft’s greatest strengths; these moves showcase the firm is working furiously make that so again.”
Meanwhile, Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, gives us another historical tidbit that indicates Microsoft is making a karmic shift.
“A couple of decades ago Microsoft disrupted the application development world as Visual Basic evolved to be a low-cost tool for the development of run-time free Windows apps,” Hilwa said. “Few remember this, but it turned the app dev software tooling world on its end—which was then expensive environments and compilers with hefty runtime licenses for developing big iron apps. Today, Microsoft is doing something similar to the cross-platform mobile development world by turning Xamarin into effectively a free product and putting the runtime in open source. For mobile developers, this is the most important announcement to come out of Microsoft Build.”
Jack Gold, founder of J. Gold Associates, summed it up a bit differently. “Xamarin was Microsoft’s way of accelerating cross platform support from Microsoft dev and run environments—e.g. Visual Studio, .NET,” he said. “And open sourcing it means that even more people will be able to access it. The cost to Microsoft for not selling licenses is trivial compared to having more users develop and deploy on Microsoft platforms —back end especially since they will tie to Azure, Office, etc.”