Xamarin Beckons Windows Developers to Build iOS and Android Apps

Nat Friedman was nearing the end of an 18-month trip through Uganda, Thailand, and Cambodia with his new wife Stephanie when he got an urgent call from his old business partner Miguel de Icaza.

Back in 1999, Friedman and de Icaza had co-founded a startup called Ximian. The company was best known for launching an open-source project called Mono that was intended to make it possible for companies with Linux machines to run software written for Microsoft’s .NET environment. Novell bought Ximian in 2003, and supported Mono as an R&D project; the Mono runtime environment eventually wound up inside a variety of hardware and software products, including IBM’s S/390 mainframe and the Unity authoring tool for 3D video games.

When Friedman finally left Novell in 2010 to take the well-deserved trip, de Icaza stayed behind. But in mid-2011, Friedman relates, “Miguel called up and said, ‘Hey, something has happened. Novell got bought by Attachmate and we all got laid off. What do you want to do?’”

It didn’t take the pair long to hatch a plan. “We decided we would try to get Mono out of Novell and try to build a company around it,” says Friedman. “But even though Mono was used on servers and gaming systems, we made a decision early on that we were going to be a mobile software company, with Mono as an enabler.”

Nat Friedman, co-founder and CEO of Xamarin

It’s a huge leap from .NET to Novell to mobile, and I’ll explain in a minute how Friedman thinks Mono will figure in the smartphone revolution. But the big news this week out of Xamarin, the San Francisco- and Cambridge, MA-based company Friedman and de Icaza founded last summer, is about money. After a year spent quietly bootstrapping—and talking Attachmate into granting them a perpetual license to Mono—Friedman and de Icaza have now roped in some major funding, collecting $12 million from Charles River Ventures, Ignition Partners, and Floodgate.

Xamarin already has plenty of revenue coming in the door from developers who subscribe to its mobile development environment, and it didn’t really need to raise the capital, says Friedman, who took the CEO post (de Icaza is chief technology officer). But “a couple of months ago we decided this was something we should do,” he says. “A couple of big companies are going to be created out of this transition to mobile, and we would like to be one of them. So investing heavily in go-to-market and the product experience … is what we decided to do.”

Now, if you follow “this transition to mobile” at all, you know that the market is a fragmented one. Neither Google’s Android operating system nor Apple’s iOS (which runs on iPhones, iPads, and the iPod touch) have a clear lead. And Microsoft isn’t completely out of the running: its Windows Phone operating system, with its slick Metro interface, has many fans. Soon there will also be a wave of Microsoft Surface tablets running Windows RT and Windows 8.

As I’ve explained before, the problem for mobile developers is that these three software worlds—Android, iOS, and Windows—couldn’t be more different. Apps for Android have to be written in Java, apps for iOS are in a language called Objective-C, and apps for Windows and .NET are mostly written in C# (pronounced C-sharp, like the musical key). If you want to run an app that will run “natively” in all three environments, you have to write it three times. But very few programmers have a command of all three languages, to say nothing of the user-interface quirks that make each platform unique—the fact that iOS devices have a single hardware button, while Android devices have three or four soft buttons, for example.

That’s where Xamarin wants to help. In the world of desktop computing, there’s long been a single dominant player, Microsoft, and a single dominant application environment, Windows and .NET. As a result, … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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