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. I was living in this anti-Apple bubble and had this notion that the iPhone was just marketing…I thought BlackBerry had it right, with a keyboard.”

Fast forward a year or two, and de Icaza says, “I was secretly drooling when someone let me use their iPhone. They did amazing work with the user interface. I was working with Linux on a desktop, and I thought, ‘How the hell did they achieve this smooth animation and perfect display?’ As soon as I bought one, that was it.”

Like a lot of people, he sees the deeper impact of mobile interfaces on the younger generation. His three-year-old daughter uses an iPad, for example. “She runs her apps and videos. It’s very impressive. We never really taught her anything,” he says. “I didn’t get to use a computer until I was 14. I never had videos, and not much TV. As a parent, I’m a little concerned. Now she’s watching the Harlem Shake…I mean, she can’t type.”

On the plus side, he says, “She learned the alphabet and how to count on her own, with apps.” Indeed, there’s a ton of activity in mobile and tablet apps for education. And de Icaza thinks developers, companies, and advertisers need to agree on some design principles for the future—keeping in mind that device users now include three-year-old kids.

Here are some more highlights from our recent chat (especially interesting are his thoughts on Microsoft, Google, Apple, and others in mobile):

On the mobile platform wars: “I see it as a very challenging time for Microsoft. They’re the third horse in a two-horse race,” de Icaza says. “It’s very difficult for Windows, BlackBerry, or Nokia or Firefox to get traction.”

On Android vs. iOS: “What Android has going for it is deep integration with Google services. I like Android for that reason, but the UI is still not there—it’s still pretty rough and more complicated than it needs to be. It is very powerful, but if I had to recommend a device for somebody, I would point them to Apple, unless they’re super technical. But Android will keep being the leader for cheap phones.”

On Google vs. Apple, more broadly: “There’s this idea floating around that Google can learn and integrate Apple ideas faster than Apple can integrate and roll out Google ideas. It remains a question whether Apple search will get as good [as Google], whether its maps will be as good, or Siri…But the quality of the OS is still important for the next few years.”

On other big tech players: Amazon’s “devices are mostly for the content they sell. It seems like they are trying to drive users to their store,” he says. Facebook is largely about “eyeballs and selling ads.” Twitter’s activity is “aimed at a high IPO price. They kind of betrayed their own community when they killed access to the Twitter platform” for developers. He adds, “Apple is focused on the consumer experience; Google wants to make sure Android gets on [more phones], so it wants to make the phone vendors happy; and we are trying to make developers happy.”

On what he wants to see at Mobile Madness today: “I am in love with all the stories of how people are building things, the challenges they have. The mobile world has unleashed lots of creativity. I think the market is very well understood in terms of where it’s going, and the adoption. I don’t think there are many questions. Devices are getting cheaper and better.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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