In June 2018, Microsoft made an announcement that shocked the technology industry. By the end of the calendar year, GitHub will be part of Microsoft.
Microsoft’s decision to buy GitHub was — and to many still is — a surprise because GitHub is the very heart of open source software development. Until recently, Microsoft and open source technologies did not work together. That seems to be changing.
The reaction was a mix of skepticism and cynicism. Was this transaction a malicious and hostile takeover of their greatest nemesis? Alternatively, was it another step by Microsoft to further open source development?
If we take Microsoft at its word, we should judge them on their recent behavior. Considering they’re now the champions of open source development and cross-platform operability, it should have us mollified. Viewed in that light, arguments against Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub begin to sound naïve, fatalistic, and stubborn.
Though the acquisition was a shock, Microsoft is working to make open source better, not take it over or stamp it out.
In their own words…
In 2007, the then-CEO of Microsoft called Linux, the most massive open source project in the world, “a cancer.” Around that time, Microsoft was at peak “anti-cooperation” philosophy. You can imagine at the time, a decision to get GitHub would have been high treason. Microsoft considered all their success in the tech world up to that point to be based on the conviction that technology like open source, or interoperability, could topple their house of cards.
From a business perspective, this is understandable. Microsoft is a monolithic software company perfecting an operating system everyone could use. They wanted to keep software developers, hardware manufacturers, network administrators, and huge corporations beholden to them for all their development needs. Open source and software interoperability was a threat to the core of their business model.
That’s not to say such a perspective is the only successful one, or positive, but that was their lens. And 2007 was not such a long time ago. Their acquisition of the most productive open source development platform is a complete 180.
Microsoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella, understands the controversy around the acquisition. His post on Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub did a perfect job of showing enthusiasm for the opportunity and self-awareness about the optics. He claimed that Microsoft has been on “a journey” with open source. When it comes to the corporation’s commitment to open source, he urges people judge them by actions taken in the recent past, today, and the future.
There are no underlines or italics throughout the blog post, but you can imagine him saying, “PLEASE” after writing, ‘judge us by our recent actions.’
However, Nadella isn’t the only one saying things like that. Microsoft President Brad Smith compared the GitHub purchase to Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn. He claimed that when Microsoft invests resources to help others, whether that’s LinkedIn or GitHub, they help them do an even better job of what they were doing before, helping them grow even faster.
It’s Smith’s position that Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s emphasis when they founded Microsoft was developer tools. For Microsoft, the GitHub sale is a “symbolic crossing of the Rubicon for [Microsoft].” He stated that the GitHub acquisition takes Microsoft back to their roots but also takes them far beyond anything the behemoth has ever done.
There are concerns that Azure will monopolize the platform to make their cloud more intuitive. But Azure CTO Mark Russinovich insists they will just become another cloud when it comes to GitHub. But if Microsoft makes it harder for developers to access other clouds, the whole point of GitHub would be violated.
It also just makes sense
The future of tech is in the cloud. The future of the cloud is in open source. There was a time those two statements would have been controversial, but that time has passed. The world realizes that. If Microsoft is spending $7 billion to buy the world’s leading open source social network-cum-project management tool — they know it, too.
It seems clear that Microsoft wants to get in good, and early, with developers. Two years ago, they revealed that their SQL Server would run on Linux, and this year they purchased the leading open source work environment. Microsoft realizes that they won’t control all the software for all the world’s computers. So, they’ve set their sights on being an integral part of the development of all the world’s technology, in one form or another.
Once Microsoft figured out that open source was the way of the future, they realized they should get in on the heart of open source. But not to control it, only to amplify it.
Say what you will about Microsoft, they’re in the top three of the world’s largest tech firms. When they have a property like GitHub, you can be sure they’ll be enhancing, optimizing, and expanding it. The more people use GitHub, the more they’ll learn Microsoft’s methods and products, and be more likely to use them moving forward.
And it looks like most users agree
It’s hard to characterize the tech world’s response to Microsoft’s announcement that they were buying GitHub. On the one hand, competitors to GitHub like GitLab have never expanded as fast as they did in the hours and days following Microsoft’s announcement.
One analyst showed that immediately after the Microsoft’s announcement, the rate of projects leaving GitHub peaked at 20,000 per hour. However, a month later, the number of GitHub projects leaving the platform dropped to a few dozens per hour.
Was that significant? Was that enough to shake the development platform to its foundations? No. According to Microsoft, upwards of 28 million developers work on GitHub. More than 85 million code repositories get used by people in about every country. So, while some particularly anxious or cynical users may have fled GitHub the moment they heard that Microsoft was buying it, the community isn’t fleeing.
The current perception among users is to ‘wait and see.’ That’s the position of plenty of analysts and open source developers. Microsoft has been making good-will efforts toward open source and interoperability in the recent past. It would make good business sense for them to have their hands in this cookie jar.
It makes even further good sense for the users of the platform to take advantage of the enormous resources Microsoft can bring to the platform. So they can always leave if things go south.
Microsoft doesn’t have a glowing, golden history of playing nice with open source. That said, it does seem like the company has changed course under the leadership of Nadella. Two short years ago, Microsoft announced it would release its proprietary network software on Linux. In that time, they have made clear, constant strides toward improving and expanding it.
Many people think the decision to buy GitHub is more of the same. Microsoft rationalized that they’re not going to beat open source, so they might as well be omnipresent in its development.