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Interview with Miguel de Icaza: Xamarin, Attachmate Layoffs, Future of Mono, More

Miguel de Icaza took time out from his hectic starting-a-company schedule to chat with me this morning about his new Mono venture, Xamarin, which he and other Novell ex-pats are just getting off the ground. He announced the startup in his May 16 blog post, hot on the heels of news that Attachmate Corporation, which acquired Novell in April, had laid off virtually all members of the Mono team.

De Icaza was able to confirm those layoffs with some confidence, because he had to conduct them himself. "It really could have been worse," he said. "I had to say, hey, you're no longer employed, but then I could say, and neither am I."

De Icaza is, of course, the originator of the Mono Project, an open-source implementation of the .NET Framework based on C# and the Common Language Runtime (CLR). In 1999 he and Nat Friedman founded a company called Ximian, originally to provide Linux and Unix desktop apps based on the GNOME platform. That company became a driving force behind Mono, and it was acquired by Novell in 2003.

But Mono never truly flowered under Novell, de Icaza said, especially in the mobile space. In fact, one of the reasons he is sanguine about the layoffs is that he and his Mono mates have been trying to spinoff the technology from Novell for more than a year.

"We all thought that Mono could really shine on its own," de Icaza said. "For years we've been wrapped in this bubble of Novell, and our mobile efforts didn't align with the strategies of an infrastructure company. We pursued them because a lot of people asked us to do it, and we're passionate about it. I guess you could say that I welcome being laid off, because it gave us a reason to get together and do what we all wanted to do." 

Under Novell, the Mono team did create MonoTouch, which allows developers to create C# and .NET apps for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices, and Mono for Android for developers creating apps for devices running that OS. Novell owns both of those technologies, which means that Xamarin will be building some of its initial products from scratch, including a new commercial .NET offering for Apple's iOS, and a new commercial .NET offering for Android. Xamarin will continue to contribute to the Mono project and the open source implementation of Silverlight known as Moonlight, de Icaza said, and he plans to explore "Moonlight opportunities" in the mobile space and the Mac appstore.

"At Novell we built both open source and proprietary products," de Icaza said. "The open source code is, well, open source. And the proprietary things are owned by Novell. We need to rebuild those things if we want to be in the market with similar products."

De Icaza added that he'd be happy to take over those proprietary projects if Attachmate decides not to pursue them, but he's not waiting around for that decision to be made.

"This is a very big acquisition," he says. "They have their own execution plan, and Mono isn't necessarily their top priority. So, we need to have a plan that doesn't depend on their timetable. We can't really afford to wait around."

De Icaza wouldn't offer any name or numbers, because "all the paperwork hasn't been completed yet," but he did tell me that most of the laid-off Mono team members would be joining the company.

On the speculation of the funding behind Xamarin, de Icaza says his fledgling company currently has two committed angels, neither of which is Microsoft, and he's providing some of the initial funding himself. "I'm not going to rule out that I'd like to have Microsoft as an angel investor," de Icaza told me. "We have talked to a lot of people at the company, and they do like us. But for that matter, I wouldn't mind having Google and eBay and RedHat and eTrade and Novell. We're pitching to everybody who will listen right now."

And what about that new company name?

"We've used monkey themes for many years," de Icaza said. "Ximian was a play on simian. Mono is Spanish for monkey. Xamarin comes from the tamarin monkey. And we kept the X, though to tell you the truth, I can't remember why we used it in the first place."

De Icaza expects his new company, which will be headquartered initially in Boston, to be incorporated early next week. Stay tuned.

Posted by John K. Waters on May 20, 2011