Microsoft acquires GitHub: an open source Damascene moment

On Friday, May 1, Business Insider revealed details of a series of conversations between Microsoft and GitHub, the largest open source repository in the world, suggesting they could lead to the acquisition of the company, which has spent many months without a clear strategic direction while it searches for a CEO. On Sunday, Bloomberg confirmed that the talks had come to fruition: on Monday, the media reported that the $7.5 billion purchase was official, and was confirmed by Microsoft.

GitHub is a repository of open source projects that uses version control and collaboration tools along the lines of a social network where developers can work together, improving their visibility to the community. It brings together some 27 million developers on around 80 million projects. In 2015, the site was valued at around $2 billion dollars after raising $250 million in a financing round led by Sequoia Capital.

Microsoft’s interest in acquiring GitHub reveals the extent to which the company’s attitude to open source software has changed: from Steve Ballmer’s 2001 comment that the licenses used in free software were “a cancer”, we have since moved to a scenario imaginable by very few, in which Microsoft contributes more code to GitHub than the likes of Google, Facebook or Apache. It has already provided a wide variety of tools to GitHub, actively uses the site’s version control system for its own developments on Windows and other products, while one of its tools, Visual Studio Code, which allows developers to work on Web and cloud applications, is now open and available in the repository, is highly popular within the development community.

The purchase makes sense in light of Microsoft’s 2016 purchase of LinkedIn. Combining both services could revolutionize the way in which companies select developers, allow the latter to showcase their contributions to the repository within the professional social network, and even follow the lead of companies like Source{d}, in using machine learning algorithms to ensure a good fit between a developer’s characteristics and those required by companies. But critics argue that such a combination could lead to an excessive focus on the repository and open source software as showcases for developer’s skills, reducing interest in less utilitarian developments.

In just 15 years, and notably since Satya Nadella’s arrival at Microsoft, the company has gone from being a target of the free software community’s ire to being an active contributor of code, tools and resources, increasingly using them internally and in its products: a genuine cultural change at all levels.

The acquisition of GitHub ensures the viability of the service, giving Microsoft a leading role in its management, with all that this entails in terms of perception of the company. At the end of 2017, Chris Wanstrath, GitHub’s CEO, said his company was totally committed to independent management and was even considering the possibility of going public to obtain the resources to make this happen. He then announced his intention to leave the company, which has since been locked in a seemingly eternal search for a successor. In the absence of a clear candidate, it seems to have opted not to complicate life with an IPO, seeing an acquisition as a more than reasonable solution. If in addition, that acquisition comes from company that uses the repository, committed to open source software and interested in ensuring the maintenance of the service, all the better. That said, some developers have opposed the acquisition, have written obituaries and said they will switch to other services.

For Microsoft, this is the culmination of a process of change of mantra to better open better than closed, and one that makes more and more sense.


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