GitHub started as a tiny corner of the internet: back in 2008, four hobby programmers – Chris Wanstrath, PJ Hyett, Tom Preston-Werner, and Scott Chacon – needed a space to safely dump and share their software code. Ten years later, their GitHub has mutated into a giant code repository for the open source community, with more than 85 million code bases uploaded by more than 28 million developers. This is not a hobbyists’ place anymore; all kinds of companies – from start-ups to giants such as Apple, Amazon and Google – depend on and contribute to it. And now it’s been bought by Microsoft.
It’s another big step for Microsoft, shedding yet more of its reputation as the bogeyman of the open source community. For years, before Satya Nadella became CEO, Microsoft was not just the epitome of a proprietary software company, it was a determined foe of the open source community, with its ethos of free to use software that is open to all developers to change and commercialise.
Back in 2001, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called the open source operating system Linux, a ‘cancer’. In 2007, Microsoft claimed that Linux violated 235 of its patents, and sued mapping company TomTom for IP infringement because it used Linux – although the two firms later settled. The same year, the Redmond-based software giant threatened to sue companies such as Red Hat, which made Linux enterprise-ready.
Nobody should be surprised if some of GitHub’s most ardent users and contributors crowd might be a tad wary of the $7.5 billion acquisition; already, rival GitLab is reporting a 10-fold increase in the number of developers moving their repositories across from GitHub.
Good or bad?
Still, while Microsoft will have to earn the developers’ trust, the deal is a major fillip for both companies, says Tarek Negm of Do Consultants, a consulting firm advising companies about best practices for software development. “Overall I think it’s good for GitHub, and better for Microsoft.”
That’s because the purchase allows Microsoft to fully compete with Amazon Web Services, as it dramatically boosts the number of software languages developers can use when they buy Microsoft cloud services. And after all, as one Microsoft employee cheekily tweeted, Microsoft has already been paying GitHub significant amounts to host code for the company through its commercial arm, and is the top contributor to the site.
As for GitHub, the acquisition will allow it to increase its reach as a tool for developers working for many of the major companies around the world. More than half of the Fortune 50, the 50 largest companies in the United States, already use GitHub. “When big companies work on digital transformations, the tools are important, but these large companies prefer to see a large product bundled into enterprise offerings,” says Negm. The imprimatur of a big-name brand like Microsoft could help sway those who didn’t want to take a risk on using an open source platform where anyone can upload code.
Still, the two firms seem an odd fit. “I cannot imagine how the bureaucratic and slow-moving culture of Microsoft could support the unparalleled innovation and advocacy that has taken place at GitHub,” says Benjamin M Gross, a developer and founder of Visualize Wealth, an investment reporting startup.
GitHub’s co-founder and chief executive Wanstrath is trying to reassure the developer community: both the founders and the new owners “believe GitHub needs to remain an open platform for all developers”.
Despite the reassurances, not all developers are happy. “Microsoft could stifle and smother a culture that has been widely successful at supporting and innovating on behalf of the open source community,” says Gross. “This is about a bastion of the open source community that has tirelessly innovated for developers being gobbled up by a company that has decades-long proof of failing to create customer-centric products.”
Microsoft’s rivals (including Amazon, Apple and Google) who use GitHub’s commercial arm to host their code will also need to be convinced that there will be a significant and strong firewall between Microsoft coders and those working on the newly-purchased GitHub.
However, Negm is buoyant about the decision – or at least “80 per cent so”. “I think it will be good for the open source community. I don’t think Microsoft has the mentality of the early 2000s where it thought ‘if you want to work with our technologies, you need to work in our ecosystem.’
“I think developers are sceptical, but I think this is the direction Microsoft has been working in the last few years. They’re strategising and changing in the last couple of years to become proper developer citizens.”
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