What a Microsoft takeover of Xamarin would mean

Shane Schick

There aren't a lot of ways Microsoft will be able to follow up its recent announcement of Office for the iPad, but confirmation that it will acquire Xamarin would come pretty close.

If the rumors are true, though, it would suggest that Microsoft is aggressively moving in a mobile-first direction that leaves much of its legacy baggage behind. As a framework that let developers code against an abstraction layer that eventually compiles into native apps for multiple mobile platforms, Xamarin has for some time now been an organization to watch.

About two months ago, for example, Xamarin launched a developer training program called Xamarin University, designed not merely for people new to using the framework for making iOS and Android apps, but experienced developers who favor a just-in-time approach to updating their skills. Around the same time, it partnered with built.io, a mobile backend-as-a-service (mBaas) startup that could potentially make inroads with enterprise clients. Overall, though, Xamarin has simply been interesting because it offers the potential for developers who are comfortable or familiar with programming languages like C# or JavaScript get a leg up on making cross-platform apps more easily. 

On the other hand, this is quickly becoming an extremely crowded market. In my recent feature story on cross-platform app development, for example, I looked at how PhoneGap, Appcelerator, Adobe AIR, Sencha and Qt are all vying for developer attention. Then there's Facebook, which unexpectedly waded into this territory with the introduction of Bolts, a set of low-level libraries that could also be used for creating cross-platform apps. When I was writing that story, I actually reached out to Xamarin to see whether something like Bolts would be seen as a complement to what it offers or yet another competitive threat. 

"We definitely noticed the Bolts launch," Craig Dunn, Xamarin's developer evangelist, responded via e-mail, but he wasn't sure if the organization had anything more to say. Being acquired by Microsoft, however, would be more than a rebuttal to anything he might have told me. 

For the last few years, meanwhile, Microsoft's primary contribution to advancing mobile computing has been to rethink the user interface of its flagship Windows operating system, creating the much-debated smart tile look and feel that now extends from its roots on the desktop to smartphones via Windows Phone 8. Xamarin is in many ways a natural fit within the Redmond-based giant because its framework is probably of greatest interest to .Net developers who would be otherwise challenged to make their way into the biggest app markets. 

Just as many consumers will no doubt celebrate the availability of MS Office on Apple's tablet, Xamarin would mean Microsoft is focused on building a true ecosystem of developers who can offer customers choice. The irony is that even though Xamarin looks like something Microsoft should already own, a move to own it would mean Microsoft becomes a much different company.--Shane