SUSE makes good with dismissed Mono devs

The announcement of a deal between the newly-formed Xamarin and Attachmate-owned SUSE regarding the Mono project gave the open source community renewed hope. To find out what's going on, we spoke to SUSE's Holger Dyroff and Xamarin's Nat Friedman about the agreement.

When Attachmate bought Novell late last year in a deal believed to be worth around $2.2 billion, many worried for the fate of the open source projects that Novell had taken under its wing. While most eyes were on SUSE, the open-source arm of which was primarily sponsored by Novell, the news that Attachmate would be laying off the staff responsible for the Mono project came as a shock to the community.

In response the engineers formed a new company dubbed Xamarin, echoing the creation of Mono's original creator Ximian prior to its acquisition by Novell in 2003. Although this gave hope that the Mono project, which provides the frameworks necessary to support client and server applications written in Microsoft's .NET language, would continue, many wondered how it would do so without Novell's support.

Thankfully, Attachmate isn't sore at Xamarin's founders for setting up the company, and Xamarin won't hold the lay offs against Attachmate. Instead, the two companies are entering into a deal that sees Attachmate offering a broad licensing agreement to Xamarin to use the parts of Mono to which it holds rights, while Xamarin will provide support for SUSE customers who wish to implement the Mono Extension.

Xamarin co-founder and investor Nat Friedman - who founded Ximian with Miguel de Icaza, who joins him at Xamarin, back in 1999 - is pleased with the deal. Describing himself as 'excited' in the company's press release regarding the partnership with SUSE, Friedman clearly sees the deal as a way of continuing the work he started with Ximian.

"We hired all the people who were working on Mono at Novell, and now they continue to work on Mono at Xamarin," he explained to thinq_ during our interview. "Xamarin itself focuses on mobile development - we think that the tools and experiences that meet us today in mobile development aren't all that great. The root of the problem is that you have to write your app for each phone platform in a different language, with a different framework, multiple times for all the different phone platforms."

Solving that problem is going to be Xamarin's focus, using the Mono technology to provide a common framework between mobile platforms to make multi-platform apps easier and cheaper to write and maintain. The company is starting with an iOS Mono stack, then an Android stack, and then a port of the required runtime environment to both platforms.

"Mono, of course, is open source," Friedman explained, "and 98 per cent of what we do is open source - but we have an integration layer which is proprietary, which we license to developers for between $400 and $1500 a seat." It's that integration layer that Friedman is hoping will provide the income Xamarin needs to be a commercial success.

"There's millions of people doing phone development out there," Friedman claimed. "If we can catch a small portion of that market... Right now, we're financially quite comfortable - Miguel and I invested in the company ourselves."

While the deal - which sees Xamarin granted a perpetual licence to the technologies that Attachmate owns regarding the Mono project - is gives Xamarin what it needs to make a go of things on the mobile market, SUSE isn't giving up on the project either. Despite Attachmate sending a clear signal that it has little interest in Mono, SUSE will continue to be heavily involved in the project.

"We have announced that we are going to continue to offer the SUSE Linux Enterprise Mono Extension," SUSE's Holger Dyroff explained, "and particularly focus that on the mainframe, on System Z. We do have quite some success on proof-of-concept where customers have done Microsoft application customisations on the mainframe, and that's going to be an interesting area where we're going to look for further demand - and of course we will continue, with the help of Xamarin, to give support for the Mono pieces which are in the distribution of SUSE Linux Enterprise products today."

That mainframe focus is quite different to the mobile-centric work that Xamarin is doing, but it's an area that Dyroff believes could be a source of great growth. "The area that we got most demand in was, interestingly, around the mainframe, where people wanted to bring certain .NET applications closer to the data which they also had on the mainframe. The broadest need is, we continue to see, around System Z."

To help SUSE with that, Xamarin will - in return for the licence agreement - provide SUSE customers with support on the implementation of Mono in their particular environment. It's a deal that Nils Brauckmann called a 'triple win' - "a win for SUSE, a win for Xamarin, but most importantly, a win for our customers, users and community" - in the press release, and one which certainly looks promising for those who rely on Mono to provide .NET compatibility.

Not everyone is pleased with the success the Mono project has enjoyed, however. Its origins in Microsoft's .NET have left some in the open source community worried about a potential Damoclean threat of copyright claims and patent infringement should Microsoft ever take offence to the project's wide-ranging uses, but that's not something that keeps Friedman awake at night.

"I don't consider it an issue," he explained. "I mean, Mono extensions are part of the default desktop in many, many Linux distributions. The open source community happens to be very vocal about patents - there are some people who feel strongly against Perl, against the GPL - I don't think it's an issue."