Microsoft's recent acquisition of Github has made waves through developer communities, sparking questions about what it will mean for the future of the site, and for the future of open source software itself.
Some welcomed the move as necessary for the guaranteed future of Github given its shaky revenue model and lack of steady leadership, while others lamented the fact that Microsoft could theoretically use the move to peek at proprietary code hosted by rivals on the site. There were even a flurry of exits, with developers shifting their code onto rival sites like Gitlab.
Of course, the move makes sense for Microsoft, which will now be ingrained within the most active developer community the world has ever seen, used by an estimated 28 million developers and currently housing billions of lines of open source code.
Because although Microsoft was helmed by a director, Steve Ballmer, who described the open source ecosystem, Linux, as 'a cancer' back in 2001, it has undergone much development since then under the guidance of new CEO, Satya Nadella. He has overseen Microsoft's sharp, 180-degree pivot on the matter of open source software, updating the party line to 'Microsoft loves Linux'.
Now, Microsoft is in fact the most active contributor on GitHub. "Microsoft is a developer-first company, and by joining forces with GitHub we strengthen our commitment to developer freedom, openness, and innovation," Nadella said of the acquisition. But while anyone can post open source code on the site for free, users must pay to keep code private. Microsoft developer and founder of the open-source programs Monoand GNOME, Miguel de Icaza, said: "Satya looked at Microsoft's bill from all the code we host on GitHub and figured it would be cheaper to buy the company."
Although Github will surely benefit from the massive resources and business expertise of Microsoft, will the conglomerate be able to honour the core values of a platform that launched with the tagline 'social coding' and is credited for encouraging the collaborative approach to software that now permeates developer communities and tech organisations?
"People used to spell Microsoft with the dollar sign instead of the S because it was all about making money, and getting money out of people; but they've really turned around," says Sam Jarman, professional developer and long-time user of Github, who works with both open source and proprietary software. "I think that they'll definitely be able to put developers best interests at heart. I think with a lot more resources GitHub will be able to deliver features that developers have actually been asking them for."
But Microsoft's U-turn on the issue of open source and its acquisition of Github isn't only decisive for the future of that particular platform, but for the future of open source itself. The concept of open source software came into existence 20 years ago, but has been slow to gain traction until the past few years. Could Microsoft's acquisition of Github carry important implications for the evolution of open source software and its uptake within an enterprise environment?
In many diverse areas, open source software has already become the de facto foundation. After all, the operating systems employed in data centres and IoT devices are open source. Container orchestration platform Kubernetes is open source, while open source is the basis for container platform Docker. And open source software such as Hadoop and Kafka is powering big data. Emerging technology is also going down the open source route, with platforms TensorFlow and MXNet forming the base of AI and machine learning technologies. These developments have caused some to predict that in the future, open source software will come to eclipse its closed-source proprietary cousin.
This may be premature, but there is however, more evidence that tech companies are embracing an increasingly open, collaborative model for software development. For example, Apple. "Apple has a programming language called Swift that iOS developers use, and now anyone who likes Swift or has an interest in it can propose a feature - doesn't even have to write the code - just proposes it, what it should look like, how it should work, and then the community can vote on that, and it will get implemented and released," says Jarman.
This inclusive approach is also embodied by Github welcoming less technically skilled people on board. For example, they have created features for use within a learning setting and are making it easier to code too with the launch of Atom, simple code editor and GitHub Desktop, a git client, which make it easier for non-experts to try their hand.
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