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Microsoft Bets on Xamarin to Boost Universal Windows Platform

When Microsoft pulled the trigger and agreed to acquire Xamarin, it hardly came as a surprise to those familiar with the company. Xamarin's tools let developers build and test their mobile applications to run on multiple platforms without rewriting them from scratch. They offer a framework for building apps in the C# programming language for not only Windows but other platforms such as Android and iOS. The Xamarin tooling has become popular with developers who have preferences for Windows as well as those focused on building applications for other platforms.

Days after the deal was announced in late February, Microsoft said it was cancelling plans to deliver on Project Astoria, the bridging technology aimed at letting Android developers port their apps to run on Windows 10 and the new Universal Windows Platform (UWP). Industry followers for many months predicted the demise of Project Astoria, built around providing an Android Open Source Project (AOSP) subsystem in Windows 10 mobile so that Android apps run with relatively few alterations. Microsoft first revealed Project Astoria at last year's Build Conference along with a similar iOS bridging technology called Project Islandwood, designed to build iOS apps in Apple's Objective C for the Windows Store. Microsoft delivered the iOS bridge in August and said it continues to frequently release updates.

Right after last year's Build, where the bridges were announced, there was skepticism and shortly thereafter questions about financial liability and Java licensing with Oracle, fueling more skepticism for Project Astoria's prospects. Regardless, following many months of rumors, Microsoft has made official it has decided to focus its bridging efforts on iOS.

"The philosophy behind the Bridges has always been to make it as easy as possible for you to bring existing code to Windows, and our investments in the iOS Bridge will make this straightforward," wrote Windows Developer Platform VP Kevin Gallo, in a Feb. 26 blog post. "We received a lot of feedback that having two Bridge technologies to bring code from mobile operating systems to Windows was unnecessary, and the choice between them could be confusing."

Some developers weren't buying Microsoft's explanation. Hector Martinez argued in the comments section of Gallo's post that Android developers use Java, which is very close to C#, while iOS mainly use Objective-C, which he noted is "a much more difficult language to work with. If you think iOS developers are going to make a huge contribution to UWP, then you are thinking wrong." Another commenter more bluntly stated: "You cancelled it because you felt breaking a promise you made to developers was less costly than continuing development."

Microsoft Program Manager Chris Rutkas defended the move. "The bridges had different implementations," Rutkas replied to the post. "The Astoria decision wasn't easy, and we carefully evaluated it for months. We do want to help you bring your existing code to Windows 10, including your Android code, and we think Xamarin will offer interesting possibilities. We'll have more to share at Build on our plans."

Those grumblings notwithstanding, Xamarin has numerous fans, who expressed enthusiasm about Microsoft's decision to pull the trigger and bring Xamarin into the fold. "I'm surprised it took so long," said Eric Shapiro, founder of ArcTouch, a San Francisco shop that designs and builds mobile apps with clients including Audi, CBS, and Yahoo. Shapiro, who first discovered Xamarin about three years ago, had expected Microsoft to buy Xamarin more than a year ago.

Since starting to use Xamarin for cross-platform development of mobile apps, Shapiro said it now accounts for a third of its work. Its use will continue to grow he said, anticipating it will ultimately be used for two-thirds of all its projects.

"When a client says 'I want iOS, Android and Windows,' then there really is no other option besides doing it in Xamarin," Shapiro said. Though he acknowledged that there are other cross-platform frameworks such as Appcelerator's Titanium and the Javascript/HTML-5-based Sencha Touch, Shapiro believes Xamarin produces higher performing apps that are easier to get approved in the Apple Store.

"We have had a longstanding partnership with Xamarin, and have jointly built Xamarin integration into Visual Studio, Microsoft Azure, Office 365 and the Enterprise Mobility Suite to provide developers with an end-to-end workflow for native, secure apps across platforms," said Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise Group Executive VP Scott Guthrie, who announced the acquisition a few weeks ago.

Shapiro is also hoping that Microsoft's acquisition of Xamarin will bring more visibility to it and that the company will make it more affordable to use. With training and support, each Xamarin developer license costs $3,600. Given Microsoft's motives for acquiring Xamarin weren't likely for potential revenue gains but to advance its ability to support cross-platform mobile apps, Shapiro is hopeful the company will add the tools to MSDN subscriptions. "Microsoft has so many more resources for training that are free," he said. "To me it will be interesting to see how this shifts."

Indeed how this all shifts should become clearer at the forthcoming Build Conference at the end of this month in San Francisco, where Microsoft is expected to outline what's next for UWP.


Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 03/18/2016 at 11:47 AM


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