Microsoft Buys GitHub: Three Weeks Later

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I heard that Microsoft would be buying GitHub just a couple days before it happened when Carlie Fairchild at Linux Journal told me about it. I replied to the news with a solid, “Get! Out!” Needless to say, I had my doubts. As someone who remembers all too well the “Embrace, extend and extinguish" days of Microsoft, the news of this latest embrace did, however briefly, bring back those old memories. When I was asked what I thought, I answered that the optics were bad.A lot of years have passed since, back in 2001, Steve Ballmer declared Linux to be a cancer. These days, Microsoft loves Linux. It says so right on its website. Two years ago, Steve Ballmer also proclaimed his love for Linux. In 2018, Microsoft has its own distribution that it uses in its Azure cloud. Microsoft includes several different flavors of Linux in its app store (the Windows Subsystem for Linux), all of which can be installed on Windows 10. Microsoft develops for Linux. Heck, Microsoft even contributes to the Linux kernel.

The reason I felt the optics were bad is that Microsoft has spent the last few years going out of its way to paint itself as a friend to Linux and open source. This, I thought, can only be seen as a bad move. Well, it’s been three weeks, more or less, since the the acquisition became official, to the tune of $7.5 billion US. What happened?

For starters, Jim Zemlin, the Executive Director of the Linux Foundation, praised the Microsoft acquisition of GifHub, suggesting that it could be a good thing for everyone. Former open-source star and the new CEO of GitHub, Nat Friedman, did an AMA on Reddit to reassure developers of open-source software that they had nothing to fear from the new landlords.

Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel and git itself, didn’t comment directly, but he has been critical of GitHub in the past, so perhaps it doesn’t change anything for him. Besides, the kernel is primarily housed on a private git server, and GitHub is just a public mirror for the code.

That didn’t stop some number of open-source developers from swearing off GitHub and looking for other places to host their projects. GitLab, a minor competitor to GitHub, seemed poised to be the natural beneficiary of this move. In a Twitter post dated June 3rd, it cited that its GitHub to GitLab conversion rate was running at ten times normal.

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This sounds like a huge impact and a reflection of the community’s negative response to the purchase, but let’s zoom out and take a look at a 30-day window.

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By June 5th, the exodus had reached a high point, with more than 8,000 projects per hour being imported from GitHub to GitLab. On June 6th, that number had dropped to 1,750, and by the 9th, we were down to a couple hundred per hour.

Given that GitHub has some 28 million users, this doesn’t qualify as a major exodus. In fact, while it’s great for GitLab, it barely qualifies as a dent.

For the record, I took that screenshot on the 14th of June. Yesterday, on the 25th of June, I noted that data prior to the 16th of June had been flushed, so it looks more like this. That last peak is 116 projects per hour, a far cry from 8,000 per hour.

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If you stop to consider the history and the historical distrust of Microsoft, why are we seeing this non-reaction?

Not to overstate it, but times have changed, and so has Microsoft. Linux is no longer a bit player; it’s the most popular and most used operating system on the planet (albeit not on the desktop), and with that kind of reach, Microsoft knows that Linux and open-source software is a fact of life in the connected and networked world. If you can’t (or won’t) support the biggest deployed ecosystem of software, you’re shutting the door on a vast sum of money. Microsoft, let’s not forget, is a business. It only makes sense that it extends its business into those areas where the developers are. For a huge part of the landscape, that’s open source.

Conversely, it also says something about how much of the Open Source world is corporate now. Also, open-source developers today, especially younger devs, aren’t coming from the “Linux is a cancer” world. They simply haven’t grown up with that, and with few exceptions, that battle is ancient history. Microsoft is just another corporate player in a landscape that includes a lot of other big players.

Open source is big business now. Really big. Trying to frame it as the "little guy" just doesn’t work when you are the establishment.

But let’s, just for a moment, pretend that Microsoft is in fact up to its old "extend, embrace and extinguish" tricks. Open source can and would survive anything Microsoft could throw at it. Linux withstood SCO (backed at the time by Microsoft) in a long legal battle, and all of Microsoft’s best attempts to frame it as dangerous, not up to the job, unreliable and a cancer. That was back when Linux was the little guy. In 2018, Linux is the Big Man On Campus.

Linux and open-source software will do just fine, even with Microsoft running the show at GitHub.

Marcel Gagné is Writer and Free Thinker at Large. The Cooking With Linux guy. Ruggedly handsome! Science, Linux and technology geek. Occasionally opinionated. Always confused. Loves wine, food, music and the occasional single malt Scotch.

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