The winds of change are blowing at Microsoft, and rarely so clearly as in the company’s product lines for software developers.
Just about a year ago, Microsoft paid around $400 million for Xamarin, a startup that lets programmers write their code once and easily turn it into an app for PCs, Macs, Android, iPhone, and almost anything else.
It’s a stark contrast from Microsoft’s old Windows-only philosophy – and even more striking given that, about a month after the deal closed, Microsoft cloud boss Scott Guthrie announced that Xamarin would be available free of charge to users of Visual Studio, the company’s flagship software for programmers.
Now, just about a year later, Xamarin cofounders Nat Friedman and Miguel de Icaza are in charge of Microsoft’s products for smartphone developers, playing a key role in today’s launch of Visual Studio 2017, the long-awaited newest version, along with a refreshed Mac version – the latter of which is mostly based on Xamarin, too.
It puts the Xamarin team, many of whom stuck around post-acquisition, in a key spot. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has pinned all of the company’s hopes for growth on the rise of the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. With the PC industry shrinking, it means Microsoft has to win over smartphone developers, putting Xamarin right on the front lines.
But de Icaza says the game plan is simple: “We want to build tools that developers want to use,” he tells Business Insider. It’s just the latest example of how Microsoft is turning to the companies it buys to shake up its thinking.
One of Nadella’s big cornerstone philosophies is that customers shouldn’t use Microsoft technologies out of obligation or requirement, but because they want to. In a market overflowing with choice, Nadella has said, you have to be the best if you want to stand out.
To that end, Nadella has espoused a holistic theory for how Microsoft should look at the market. If customers use one Microsoft technology and like it, they might enjoy using others, too.
And so, Julia Liuson, Microsoft’s corporate VP of the developer division, says that Nadella goes so far as to monitor threads on sites like Reddit and Hacker News. He gets excited when a programmer says that their appreciation of Visual Studio, or its sister products Visual Studio for Mac and the free Visual Studio Code, gets them to try out the Microsoft Azure cloud platform or even look at a Windows PC.
And Xamarin feeds right into that strategy, says de Icaza. “It turns out that Xamarin developers have an affinity for [Microsoft] Azure [cloud] services,” he says. If you use Xamarin to build an app, you’re more likely to use Azure to power it on the backend, too.
Pre-acquisition, Xamarin already had a sizable customer base. Now, even Microsoft’s big business customers are getting in on the action. Many of them already use Visual Studio to do their programming, Liuson says, so the addition of Xamarin greatly simplifies their process of making apps for multiple operating systems.
“We are getting lots of requests from companies that want to build on Xamarin,” says Liuson. In fact, she says, British Airways is using it to build all of their apps for multiple operating systems, letting them have one core programming team rather than one for each platform.
When the Xamarin acquisition was first announced, de Icaza called the modern Microsoft “a different organization” than it was under former CEO Steve Ballmer.
He credits the turnaround to the leadership of Nadella and Microsoft cloud boss Scott Guthrie. Before he was CEO, Nadella led the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, and Guthrie leads it currently.
In those roles, de Icaza theorizes, they were more exposed to the wide world of programming beyond just Microsoft technologies – the modern programmer works largely with the Linux operating system, not Windows, just for starters.
- Beck Diefenbach/Reuters
That background made Guthrie and Nadella “more open to that framework than people from a purely Windows background,” de Icaza says. On their watch, Microsoft has embraced Linux, as well as other technologies from the likes of Samsung and Google, in recognition of the way that their customers actually want to build software.
Indeed, under Guthrie, Microsoft made Xamarin’s cofounders the heads of the company’s products for mobile developers. And de Icaza says that his team is working to pay back Microsoft’s trust by building the best set of tools that they can.
“There’s a sense of pride in everyone who worked at Xamarin who works at Microsoft,” says de Icaza.