This week at Microsoft’s //build/ 2016 conference in San Francisco, Scott Guthrie shared more details about the Xamarin acquisition and what this means for developers on the Microsoft stack. The keynote is worth checking out, also for the great Azure content. More interesting details about what Xamarin has in the works can be found in Miguel de Icaza’s session. Or you can watch the distilled announcement here:
In short, Microsoft has made the Xamarin tools available to everyone. If you have a Visual Studio Professional or Enterprise edition, Xamarin is included at no extra cost. Moreover, it’s also available as a completely free Community Edition, under the same Microsoft license terms (small teams, OSS developers and students). Wow!
Even though the technology is widely regarded as excellent, as Miguel states in his talk: Xamarin used to be a bit of a niche product because of the pricing. And let’s be honest, they were steep and it turned people off, even though you could easily build a solid business case in terms of money and time saved due to higher developer productivity. But this means that Microsoft has removed a big barrier for a lot of companies and developers to adopt Xamarin! Not only that, but the fact that Microsoft is fully behind the Xamarin approach is very beneficial for customers who were betting their mobile development approach on Xamarin.
This interview with Nat Friedman on TechCrunch is an interesting read if you want to learn more about the acquisition.
Open source FTW
One of the most notable changes within Microsoft lately is their big support for open source. Microsoft emphasised this by open sourcing their .NET Framework, which has received many pull requests and active contributions since. This lead to .NET being revamped to a cross platform runtime and framework which runs on Windows, Mac and Linux as well (my colleague Alex Thissen wrote an interesting article about .NET Core in the second issue of Xpirit Magazine). This is something that Mono and Xamarin have already been pioneering over the past years. It’s nice to see these things come together and the teams combining forces to move things forward. It’s a bit soon to tell what will happen with Mono in the future and whether it will merge with .NET over time, but for now it’s important to know that Mono has been re-lincensed under the MIT license, which is a pretty big deal in itself.
Moreover, Nat Friedman also announced that the whole Xamarin framework, their customized Mono runtime and Xamarin.Forms will be contributed to the OSS .NET Foundation. How cool is that!
Full cycle mobile DevOps
With the acquisition of Xamarin and – earlier – HockeyApp, Microsoft now has a pretty strong full cycle DevOps story for mobile development. Obviously the development story with cross platform C# already was strong, integration into VSTS for continuous integration is very powerful and continuous deployment to HockeyApp for internal enterprise apps is also quite easy. Check out my colleague Geert’s blog series on this topic. TestCloud remains an excellent way to mitigate test risks with their vast array of devices.
Over time, we’ll see Xamarin Insights integrated into HockeyApp for .NET native crash reporting and analytics. Xamarin Insights is a very nice product and their native support for .NET exception stack traces and ability to use the SDK in a shared PCL project is pretty powerful. I expect that after merging with HockeyApp, the pricing model for the analytics part will be much more attractive as well.
It would be cool to see more seamless integration of tools like Fastlane for easy and automated submission to public AppStores, etcetera.
Everyone can do Xamarin now! (?)
This all means that every .NET developer can do mobile development with Xamarin now.
Or at least, technically… Moving into mobile development – especially iOS and Android – coming from a Windows, ASP.NET, back-end development background isn’t as easy as 1-2-3.
To me the beauty of Xamarin has always been that they provide unrestricted access to every native API that is also available to Swift, Objective-C and/or Android Java developers. In my opinion, this still yields the highest quality apps while still being able to reuse a good portion of your code across platforms. The power lies in the fact that you can play with the level of reuse vs. native platform specific code as it suits you as opposed to going all in with UI abstractions and reuse all of your code. Abstraction in software development is a slippery slope and Xamarin allows you to stop abstracting if you feel it goes too far. I sincerely hope that this direct-access-to-native-API’s approach will remain a core feature of the Xamarin product, and we won’t be forced into a “UWP for all platforms” model.
Having access to all the native API’s lets you leverage the unique capabilities of the underlying OS-es. Apple Pay, Touch-ID, etcetera. But this requires deep knowledge of how these OS-es work and how to use their API’s. iOS and Android are very different beasts when it comes to their architecture and solutions for problems. This means that in my opinion, there will still be iOS developers, Android developers and Windows Developers, even though they’re all working with the same language. Sure you can master them all, but I think a good mix of specialism and multi-disciplinary teams are the way to go. Mobile devs are just like normal humans, and can be pretty biased about their platform of preference. This sometimes makes for great and interesting discussions on how to solve a particular use case on all platforms, aside from the occasional fun banter about the Windows Mobile app gap, not being able to open links on iOS, or the immense device and OS fragmentation in the Android world.
In any case, there will be a whole army of .NET developers coming to the Xamarin platform and there will be a huge demand for knowledge. Xamarin’s Developer Center has been revamped and it looks very nice. It’s a great resource for learning how to build apps with Xamarin and they do an excellent job explaining the native API’s and how to leverage them from C#. But over the years I have found that presenting at user groups and conferences and delivering in-person training is also a great way to share knowledge.
Both Marcel and I at Xpirit have been heavily invested in Xamarin since the early days and we’ve had the opportunity to fly around the world to speak about Xamarin. I look forward to continue sharing our knowledge. Our team was recently enforced with Geert joining Xpirit, and we’re dedicated to helping developers and customers do professional mobile development with Xamarin and Microsoft.
Come meet us and dive in head first with us at one of the following opportunities:
- Centric knowledge session Xamarin vs. Cordova – April 13th, Gouda
- Xamarin Evolve 2016 – April 24-28, Orlando
- Techorama Pre-Conference training – May 2nd, Antwerp
- Visual Studio Live! pre conference training and breakout sessions – June 13th, Boston
My hopes and expectations
It surely looks like Microsoft is invested in making the Xamarin tools a first class citizen in the .NET developer stack and Visual Studio ecosystem. We can expect deeper integration of Xamarin into Visual Studio, and Miguel already showed a glimpse of that with an iOS Simulator running on Windows. This sparked some debate about whether or not this is an actual simulator running natively on Windows, but if you listen carefully, Miguel explains that it is a simulator window remoted to a Mac. I think this trick is similar to how Xamarin does it’s build & app packaging for iOS with a remote build host over SSH:
I’ve seen a setup like this at many companies, where Windows PC’s were the standard developer setup, and Mac’s are considered “exotic”. Using a Mac Mini as a remote build host works ok, but if you wanted to test and debug, you needed to switch to that Mac physically or access it via VNC. That was sub-optimal and this solution is pretty sweet. I don’t think we’ll be able to have a native iOS developer story without a Mac because of Apple restrictions regarding their SDK but this promises to make the developer experience for a Windows based developer a whole lot smoother. I think Marcel will be happy
It’s no secret that I’m more biased towards iOS and developing on the Mac. Using Xamarin Studio, sometimes switching to Xcode for the Interface Builder and the pleasant experience with the much less bloated Xamarin Studio IDE has become more natural to me than working from Windows and I’ve come to prefer it. With Microsoft pushing towards developer tools for Linux and Mac (VS Code), it looks like Xamarin Studio is also here to stay, and hopefully with the same level of investment to push the product ahead. Who knows, maybe Xamarin Studio might become the official Visual Studio IDE for the Mac one day
In his //build/ session, Miguel showed off Xamarin Workbooks, which is based on the Xamarin Inspector. It looks very sweet as a test-bench for C# code and documentation tool. But even better: it can now be used to inspect and play with a live running app on the simulator! That is awesome as it shortens the dev/build/run/debug cycle tremendously. I hope that it will become a core part of the developer experience from within Xamarin Studio / Visual Studio but for now it has already saved me a lot of time this week while trying it out.
I also have good hopes that the original character of Xamarin’s approach (full access to native API’s) will remain intact. UWP sounds like a good idea for the Windows platform but Xamarin has always stressed that Xamarin.Forms has very specific use cases. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and frankly that’s the main thing I’ve been arguing against ever since I chose to go with Xamarin as opposed to Cordova, Titanium or others. So while I do expect that there will be something like a UWP for Windows, iOS and Android, it cannot be the only way to develop native mobile apps.
More dots to come…
Evolve 2016 promises to be a fantastic conference and a big party to celebrate the future of Xamarin at Microsoft. I hope to see you there.
Nat Friedman wasn’t kidding when he replied to my Instagram musing:
Here’s to more dots!