Miguel de Icaza: From “Anti-Apple” to Xamarin, Helping Windows Devs Go iOS

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that some of the world’s most prominent techies live in Boston. One of those is Miguel de Icaza, who will be in the audience today at Mobile Madness 2013 at Microsoft NERD in Cambridge, MA.

De Icaza (pictured) is the open-source software guru who started the GNOME project in the ‘90s to build a free, Windows-like desktop environment for the Linux operating system. He’s also known for leading Mono, an effort to help companies with Linux systems run Microsoft’s .NET development platform. That project was done through de Icaza’s startup with Nat Friedman, called Ximian, which was bought by Novell in 2003.

Most recently, de Icaza is the co-founder and chief technology officer, also with Friedman, of Xamarin—a 60-person startup based in Cambridge, MA, and San Francisco. (Those offices house mostly engineering/quality control and sales and marketing, respectively). The company seems like a natural extension of their work at Ximian, but applied to the mobile world—and all of its harsh realities, as we’ll get to in a minute.

It all came about after Attachmate bought Novell in late 2010. Friedman and de Icaza left the company (at different times) but managed to talk Attachmate into granting them a perpetual license to the Mono technology. Xamarin was initially bootstrapped and is now VC-backed by Charles River Ventures, Ignition Partners, and Floodgate, to the tune of $12 million. That means “we can take a few risks we wouldn’t consider before,” de Icaza says.

Xamarin makes software that helps mobile developers (especially Windows developers) write iOS and Android apps in the C# programming language, which is pronounced “C sharp” and used in Windows and .NET environments. That’s instead of having to use Java, Objective-C, or HTML5 plus a native “wrapper,” say. Last month, the company released a major update that includes many new features for developers. Probably the most significant one is that the software now enables developers to write and debug iOS and Android apps in Visual Studio, the leading Windows environment for C# and .NET developers.

“We’re finally very proud of the product we have,” de Icaza says.

The bigger idea here is that Xamarin is trying to “make writing applications a lot more pleasant,” he says, and also make it simpler for developers to “create very pretty applications” without depending on an outside studio. As he puts it, mobile-app developers spend a lot of their time on bookkeeping and other boilerplate duties—keeping track of where data is, which server is being accessed, how to keep the app responsive while you’re uploading a photo or sending a tweet, and so forth. Handling errors for each possible scenario gets exponentially difficult—which is why developers often take shortcuts that can lead to sloppy code.

So Xamarin is pushing its own approach, using C# and .NET, which it says makes handling errors—and the subsequent code—a linear task instead of an exponential one. The difference lies in the architecture of the programming itself, and the result is that applications are always responsive, the company says. More broadly, Xamarin would argue, its platform helps developers be more creative—and create better-performing apps.

As de Icaza explains, “Microsoft put a lot of brainpower into solving the problem.” Back around 2006, a team at Microsoft Research Cambridge in the U.K. developed a “functional” programming language called F# that was designed to simplify code for complex applications. The idea was implemented in C# a few years later, and Microsoft released it as part of the Windows Phone 7 launch. “Sadly, Windows Phone didn’t get as much traction, but we’re bringing that elegant way to iOS and Android,” he says.

Let’s step back a bit. From de Icaza’s perspective, there is a huge opportunity to bring an untapped group of developers into the mobile fold. Namely, those who’ve only (or mostly) written Windows applications in the past. And if Xamarin becomes one of the top app-development platforms—it has thousands of customers but still has a ways to go—it could be a really big company.

De Icaza is a developer at heart, so that’s where his main motivation lies—in helping engineers unleash their creativity in the post-PC era. “Software programmers love programming, but they were working with soul-sucking software” on desktops, he says, especially for enterprise applications. “Now developers don’t have to build miserable software,” he says.

It’s important to realize that de Icaza doesn’t have all the answers in mobile. Back in 2007, in fact, he completely missed the significance of the iPhone. Though he had long been captivated by the idea of multi-touch user interfaces, when the original iPhone debuted, he says, “I kind of dismissed it. … Next Page »

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