Future Tense

Microsoft Is Buying GitHub. Now It Has to Convince GitHub’s Users to Trust It.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 4: The  Microsoft store on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan is shown June 4, 2018 in New York City. Microsoft officially announced today an agreement to buy GitHub, a code repository company popular with software developers, for $7.5 billion in stock. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Who trusts Microsoft?
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Microsoft is acquiring GitHub, the largest code repository in the world, for $7.5 billion, the companies announced on Monday morning. GitHub, an online community for software developers to collaborate and share code, has never been profitable, though it was last valued at $2 billion in 2015. The company is host to a community of 28 million developers who maintain a total of 85 million code repositories. In the decade since it was founded, Github has become a cornerstone of the tech world, and one of the most important places on the internet for entities as large as Google and Microsoft and as small as high-school coding projects to document their work and collaborate.

When news broke that the acquisition had gone through Sunday night, developers in the open source community started to grumble. “Clients don’t trust Microsoft, I don’t trust Microsoft, and one way or another they are gonna find a way to ruin things. Rip github,” tweeted one programmer Sunday .

GitHub became so popular, in part, because it put a finger on the scale in support of a more open web: It was free to use if your project was public and open source, while closed projects had to pay a monthly fee. That perk makes sense: GitHub is, after all, a friendlier and prettier version of Git, an open source version-control system created by Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. The current CEO of GitHub, Chris Wanstrath, is stepping down and will become a Microsoft technical fellow, while the new CEO of GitHub under Microsoft will be Nat Friedman, whose company Xamarin, a platform that helps developers code for Android and Windows, was acquired by Microsoft in 2016. GitHub is the second major acquisition of Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella, who also oversaw the purchase of LinkedIn for $26.2 billion in 2016.

Developers who have reservations about Microsoft taking over the largest repository of open-source software projects may remember the time that Microsoft’s then-CEO, Steve Ballmer, called Linux “a cancer,” since some open-source software licenses require people who build iterations to make their software open-source, too. Then there was the mess made of Skype after Microsoft acquired the peer-to-peer voice and video-calling company, or the abuse of its market power in the 1990s to attempt to make its Explorer browser ubiquitous. Microsoft is also a major contractor with the Pentagon, something that Google recently came under heat for after it was revealed the company had been working to build artificial intelligence for a military drone program.

Nadella, however, has been much friendlier with the open source community, and has even been working to move teams internally to develop on Linux, according to Bloomberg’s report on the GitHub acquisition. Microsoft also has been open sourcing more of its products, like PowerShell and Visual Studio, added the Linux command line to Windows 10, and became a member of the Linux Foundation, a nonprofit that helps to fund and provide resources for open-source software development, in 2016. Microsoft currently claims it’s the biggest contributor on Github to date. Github has also had its own spats with the developer community over the years, with developers complaining about things like a lack of transparency and communication with developers seeking support.

“Microsoft is a developer-first company, and by joining forces with GitHub we strengthen our commitment to developer freedom, openness and innovation,” Nadella wrote in a statement following the announcement. “We recognize the community responsibility we take on with this agreement and will do our best work to empower every developer to build, innovate and solve the world’s most pressing challenges.” Nadella further emphasized that GitHub will remain an open platform and operate independently from Microsoft.

But those promises may not win over open-source enthusiasts. GitLab, a competitor of GitHub, tweeted on Sunday the company has seen “10x the normal daily amount of repositories #movingtogitlab.”

While it’s hard to know exactly how GitHub will fit into Microsoft’s business model, Nadella did hint that his company plans to “accelerate enterprise developers’ use of GitHub” by integrating the platform with Azure, Microsoft’s cloud service. It could also use its ownership of GitHub to nudge developers to build apps for Windows, though that would cut against its promises of operating it independently. In the most worrying scenario, Microsoft could use its position to monitor competitors’ projects on Github—and it’s possible that the simple fact of its ownership could scare away some GitHub users for that reason.

Whatever comes of the partnership, Microsoft probably knows that it’s going to have to earn the trust of the developer community on GitHub and the legions of open-source heads who may view Microsoft’s mission as antithetical to their own. The open-source Git protocol, which GitHub is based on, is free. That free-to-use software was iterated on to create a tool that sold for more than $7 billion. Microsoft should be eager to support open-source developers if it hopes to foster the kind of innovation that allowed for GitHub to be possible in the first place—and to do that it’s going to have to tread very, very lightly.