"When GitHub first launched ten years ago, I could have never imagined this headline"
..., begins the press release of GitHub CEO and Co-Founder Chris Wanstrath. He will shortly be replaced by Nat Friedman who was up to this day running the Microsoft-daughter Xamarin. To be honest, it still sounds like a bad joke to many developers. Even though it was expected for a while, seeing the sealed deal creates a moment of disbelieve: Microsoft acquired GitHub for $7.5 billion in stocks. Not being profitable enough probably did it’s share in the decision to sell the cooperative company.
Lets face it..
What 27 million software developers have pretty much called their home for the past ten years is now owned by the company that used to consider open source software a major threat, calling it "un-American" and a contrast to capitalism as if this was a bad thing. But of course things have changed ever since Satya Nadella has taken over the management of Microsoft from Steve Ballmer. They have been by far the worlds biggest contributor to the platform. But don’t mistake altruism with opportunities. They already benefit from it as well...
Microsoft has learned from it’s past mistakes. They have seen how Google and Facebook gathered huge communities around some of their popular open source projects and how that also changed the way their "evil" competitors were perceived. At the same time Microsoft lost a lot of talent because they had not much to offer to progressive developers. In a big effort they changed that, started to create tools like Visual Studio Code or Typescript that where embraced by the developer community and things started to turn around. Now they own the tool of the tools that made these kind of success stories possible.
Microsoft is absolutely right when it comes to emphasizing the steadily growing importance of developers in the digital age. Therefore it’s only a smart move to recognize the potential of open source methods and conquering the field early enough to ensure the right amount of influence to give the movement a twist that they benefit from. Basically they are securing their supremacy in open source.
Despite all the horror-scenarios that people are creating at the moment, it is likely that the platform itself will remain free. However, many developers are highly wary since Microsoft has been well and long known for following the strategy of embracing, extending, extinguishing – meaning that it’s likely that it will extend the up till now free version control system with proprietary capabilities to outsmart competition. Or just mess it up like they did with Nokia, Skype and LinkedIn; their previous acquisitions. Mistrust is highly developed. And that’s probably not made up out of thin air because they could benefit from it in two possible ways. First of all they are also well known for loving to mine data. Some even speculate that Microsoft would dare to look into code that isn’t publicly hosted, snatching bits and pieces to their advantages. Secondly it seems appealing that they simply want to lure people into being dependent to their Azure cloud system.
Instant reactions can be observed in the statistics of GitHub's biggest rival Gitlab which shows a sudden explosion of project imports. Many users announce their move on Twitter and Reddit while only ostensibly few people welcome the acquisition, calling it progressive and inevitable. In the meantime GitHub and Microsoft officials blast the world wide web with grandiloquent promises about the future of open source projects and the further development of the platform without getting into too much detail. Everything they plan on doing remains rather hazy and has a touch of dull populism. Emotive buzzwords like "embracing", "empowering", "accelerating" and "bright future" are widely spread without being filled with concrete steps, mimicking the way many politicians talk nowadays. The prophetic claims of Microsoft being a developer-centric company need to be followed by some action. Because so far, developers seem to be horrified by the decision of giving one of the most central tools away to big business.
Putting all the silly "Clippit", "Microsoft ruining everything" and "home, premium or ultimate access" jokes aside – the underlying commitment to a platform which is basically self-governed by the people using it will be broken by the now obvious lack of decentralization – the exact fact that used to make GitHub what it was. Of course it was a private company before. But it was one that you had trust in. It was a company where you expected to be around likeminded nerds and that’s about trying to figure out how to work together in the 21st century, build the corresponding tools for it and share them freely among all of the users. There was a certain spirit. And that spirit was not Microsoft.
Looking at the acquisition in the sense of a broader phenomenon it unearths the influence of big corporations on our daily life and work. It exemplifies the power of money to monopolize autonomous movements and put them under its rule. We really have to ask ourselves whether or not we want to accept it the way it is and just go with the flow or look for different alternatives like self-hosting and consciously shutting big business out of our working routines to ensure absolute autonomy over our creations.
We need to decide who serves who.