Xamarin - a knight in shining armor for Microsoft's mobile malady?

Microsoft has just announced the acquisition of Xamarin. Here is a re-run of a post from April 2015 that is still very relevant circa 2016. 

Microsoft turns forty this April and is staring at a serious mid-life crisis. Of course, Microsoft is still the third-most valuable company on the planet, with a $90 billion cash pile.  But there's no denying some serious clouds hang over Redmond's future. Is it on a slow but steady path to irrelevance in a "consumer-first, cloud-first, mobile-first" world?

A couple of charts illustrate how the ground is shifting for Microsoft.

MS marketshare

Figure 1: Microsoft marketshare of desktop operating systems. Data Source: Net Applications

As you can see Microsoft still lords over the desktops with a 91% marketshare. In the good old days when a personal computing device was synonymous with a destkop (or a laptop), that was awe-inspiring and Microsoft was more or less the software sheriff of the universe. 

Cut to today and look at smartphones and tablets. Here is the platform marketshare picture. 

Figure 2: Platform marketshare for all personal computing devices currently in use. Data Sources: Benedict Evans and RSG estimates

You can see that Microsoft has already lost its crown. What should be even more worrisome for Microsoft is this: PC sales are falling but smartphone sales are sky-rocketing, and Microsoft is shipping less than 3% of those smartphones. Certainly, the future isn't what it used to be. 

So, everyone (including Redmond) knows that Microsoft has a mobile problem the size of Mars. The new leadership in Redmond has been more proactive than before but the big question is whether their initiatives on the mobile front will amount to little more than a rearguard action. 

As we all know, people don't typically purchase a mobile phone for only the hardware. We buy into the apps and ecosystem around the mobile platform. But that's a chicken-and-egg situtation for Microsoft and its Windows Phone platform. 

Mobile platforms

Figure 3: Primary platform for professional mobile developers. Data Source: Vision Mobile

Despite some serious courting by Microsoft, less than 10% of app developers target Windows Phone as the primary platform. Understandably so, for they make next to nothing from developing for the Windows Phone platform. 

mobile app revenues

Figure 4:  Median monthly revenue per app by mobile platform. Data Source: Vision Mobile

A classic catch-22 here: You don't want to buy a Microsoft mobile device because of the limited availability of apps; but because there aren't a significant number of users to target, developers won't build for the Windows platform. 

The risk to Microsoft is that even the currently loyal developers (however few they may be) may abandon ship. If that happens Microsoft won't at all be able to revive it's fledgling franchise in the mobile space. 

Enter Xamarin

Xamarin, a vendor we review in our Enterprise Mobile Technology evaluations stream, is a cross-platform mobile development tool. It lets you develop mobile apps not just for the Windows platform but also for Android and iOS -- albeit using C# and .NET, the traditional Microsoft technologies.

In other words, the legions of traditional Microsoft developers can potentially become mobile-app developers, without having to learn new programming languages. This could help alleviate the "app-gap" (i.e., the lack of apps and an anemic appstore) to some extent extent. 

Microsoft realizes this. Microsoft and Xamarin are partners and work closely together. But Xamarin doesn't want to commit exclusively to Microsoft and has been working with other platform players as well. It is oft-speculated that Microsoft will acquire Xamarin. Perhaps. Such a solemnization might be prove more fruitful (to Microsoft) than the big-ticket acquisition of Nokia, which really has not moved the needle much for Redmond.

We'll keep track of how Microsoft's mobile story unfolds. In the future, acquiring Xamarin might prove to be a good move for them. However, as an enterprise buyer, you need to evaluate Xamarin on what it brings to the table -- its strengths and weaknesses and its relative match against your enterprise mobile strategy and developer expertise.



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