Last week when I was the guest speaker on Xojo’s webinar on consulting, I fielded a question regarding Xamarin. The basic gist of the question was if I felt that Xamarin was a threat to Xojo. At the time I had heard of Xamarin and read a few articles on it but that was about it. In the week since I’ve been doing more research on the topic.
Xamarin is an interesting development tool. To sum up what it is in a sentence or two probably does it some injustice but here’s my take. Xamarin takes the C# language and .NET framework and has ported it to Mac OS X, iOS, and Android. This allows developers to use the Visual Studio IDE on Windows, and Xamarin Studio users on Mac OS X and Linux to create native Mac OS X, iOS, Android apps, in addition to Windows desktop and Windows Phone apps.
I threw Mac OS X in there since it’s listed on their website but it appears to more of an afterthought since the focus seems to be on mobile applications. Indeed, their mantra is that they want to make the best development experience for mobile applications.
I am not a C# developer but like most modern languages it’s not the language that’s difficult to learn it’s the framework and .NET is arguably one of the biggest and most advanced frameworks around. Having the .NET framework available for iOS, Android, and Mac OS X is a huge advantage for anyone already familiar with it. Theoretically it should make the transition from Windows developer to cross-platform developer very easy.
Xamarin uses native platform user interfaces and compiles to native applications for each supported platform. This is good in that you get the best of each platform. The not so good is that it appears that you’ll end up coding each user interface separately (see Xamarin.Forms later on). I can see the arguments going both ways on this whether this is good or bad.
Unlike Xojo, Xamarin does not have a built-in forms editor. They give the option of building Cocoa and Cocoa-touch applications strictly via code or by using Apples Interface Builder. You either stay in Xamarin to build everything via code or you exit to Interface Builder to design your UI. I can’t imagine that’s very efficient but Interface Builder wasn’t always integrated in Xcode either. As a developer you have to roll with the punches.
The Xamarin framework has some cross-platform calls to make life easier, but when it comes to iOS and Mac OS coding it appears that most of it is similar to Xojo’s ability to make declares into the native OS. Again, you might call this a strength as you get the Apple methods but it also means that you’ll need to know each target OS in detail which can be a rather large learning curve.
Xojo abstracts as much of the platform as possible which means that a TextField on Mac OS has mostly the same capabilities as a TextField in Windows and Linux. The strength in Xojo means that you don’t need to know the details of each platform but it also means that you generally get a compromise in functionality. This is where system declares can really aid the Xojo developer.
Xamarin’s website is gorgeous. Nearly everywhere you go there are very helpful tutorials and videos explaining how to do things. It’s also laid out in such a way that you can quickly find things. The Xojo website is okay and relatively easy to find things but Xamarin goes out of their way to convince you to use their development tool.
The tagline on the Xamarin home page is “Create native iOS, Android, Mac and Windows apps in C#. Join our community of 687,765 developers.” Practically everything about the website screams, “Use me and you’ll make a great applications!” It’s very professional looking and it’s all business.
The tagline on the Xojo website reads, “Create powerful multi-platform desktop, web & web-mobile apps. Fast development. Easy deployment.” It’s not that Xojo doesn’t attract professional developers but their emphasis is on different things.
One thing that surprised me quite a bit was under the Support/Consulting Partners menu of the Xamarin website. It’s a listing of Xamarin consultants and they are listed by tier (authorized or premier), by geographical region, and by expertise. The Xojo website has the Find a Developer page. The first says that it’s a serious language with a lot of software development partners and the other says that it’s a smaller community.
The Xamarin IDE is fairly simple and seems to be a hybrid between Xojo and Xcode. Their Solutions pane is not nearly as complex as the Navigator and is far simpler and easier to use, in my opinion. The Solutions list only shows objects unlike the Xojo Navigator that shows everything (methods, properties, constants, enums, etc) as you drill down into the object. As you select an object in the Solutions list the source code editor loads all your source code.
If I had a major beef with Xojo is that they try too hard to dumb down the IDE. You can’t just start typing away like you can in practically every other language/development environment I’ve ever seen. Instead, you are forced to add methods through the Xojo UI. You’re forced to do the same thing with properties, events, constants, enums and so on. While this is great for people just starting out in Xojo it’s a limiting factor for more experienced users and forces you to use the mouse – a lot. This means you can only see one method at a time unless you open up multiple windows whereas the Xamarin source code editor shows you everything in the source code. Method definitions are defined via text in the code editor and not by a specific user interface.
Xamarin has the prerequisite autocomplete in the source code editor and appears to be work roughly the same as Xojo’s. One thing that I REALLY liked about Xamarin was a tool tip showing you what the current parameter was. As the user types the code editor recognizes where it is and provides a tool tip with a hint on what it’s currently expecting for the parameter. This was one of my favorite features from VB6 and sadly, Xojo’s source code tip is an antique by comparison.
Xojo has a built-in forms editor. Not only that but it has a reports editor, menu editor, database editor, as well as specific editors for a bunch of one-off items. Xamarin shows objects and source code – that’s it. So this forces you to either build all the UI via code or via an external editor. While the Xojo editors aren’t perfect they are there and easy to use.
If you purchase the Xamarin Indie subscription (or better) you can use the Xamarin.Forms module which allows you to build iOS, Android, and Windows Phone screens from a single code base and it should speed up development. However, I think Xamarin faces similar hurdles to Xojo in that a bug in their framework requires a new release so it’s no panacea. And, you still build the UI via code not through a GUI editor.
Xamarin comes with four different subscription options. The Starter Subscription is free and is good for individual developers and allows you to deploy Android, Windows Phone, and iOS apps to a device and to their respective app stores. Apps are limited in size and you are forced to use the native UI builders.
The Indie Subscription costs $299 per year, per developer, per platform. If you were interested in iOS, Android, as well as Mac OS X this would cost $807.30. Apps are unlimited in size and can use Xamarin.Forms.
The Business subscription costs $999 per year, per platform, and per developer. This gives you Visual Studio support, “business features”, and email support. The same Android, iOS, and Mac bundle jumps to $2,697.30.
The Enterprise subscription costs $1899 per year, per platform, and per developer. This adds Prime Components (pre-built UI assemblies), guaranteed response time of a day, hot fixes, an individual manager, a bunch of support and code troubleshooting options.
Xojo pricing is much simpler by comparison. $99 for an individual platform license with a $99 1 year renewal. $299 for all desktop apps (Mac, Windows, Linux) with a $150 1 year renewal. $399 for web apps (running on Mac, Windows, or Linux computers) with a $200 1 year renewal. $999 gets the Pro license which gives you all desktop, web, database server, and console/service apps, consulting leads, and beta program access and the 1 year renewal is $500. The Enterprise license at $1,999 is everything as Pro with an additional day of custom training and the 1 year renewal is $1,999. All of the licenses are for a single developer.
Xojo is considerably less expensive but the Xamarin pricing is inline with what professional developer organizations are used to paying for their tools.
If I were a C# developer I would be all over this product – especially if I wanted to my apps running on non-Microsoft computers and devices. I believe this is where many of the nearly three quarters of a million developers are coming from. I’m sure there are plenty of other developers that were tired of developing their mobile apps on one or possibly even three separate development tools too. Xamarin makes the development process easier by using a single tool.
Xamarin is really pushing mobile app development. Based on the forum activity I suspect that Mac OS X isn’t in the limelight but because iOS is so similar I can see why it was added. It’s another notch in the capabilities checklist for a growing tool and user base. If you can do all of your development with one tool why wouldn’t you?
Xojo really isn’t competing in the same space as it’s for only desktop and web applications (an iOS version is currently in alpha testing and should be released this year). Xojo has been doing cross platform desktop and console applications for nearly two decades and has transitioned through 68k, PPC, and Carbon to Cocoa on the Apple side as well as all the Windows and Linux variants and versions. Web apps are relatively new but the framework is very much the same as the desktop side.
From what little we’ve seen of the iOS version (remember that it’s in alpha testing right now) it has a built-in forms editor and uses pretty much the same framework as the desktop and web (with specific differences, of course). It promises to make developing for iOS extremely easy. However, Xojo has no current plans to support Android or Windows phone. This might be the one key difference that might make Xarmarin an attractive development environment for many.
Will this consulting company be switching from Xojo to Xamarin anytime soon? No. The cost of migrating to a new tool, retraining, and getting involved with consulting in a new environment is considerable. If Xojo went away tomorrow I know which tool I’d look at first.