Microsoft may be the world's largest open source contributor, but developers don't care--yet

Microsoft has twice as many employees actively contributing to open source compared to Google, yet it gets half the credit. As it turns out, old views of the Redmond giant die hard.

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Microsoft is the world's biggest open source contributor, at least, as measured by the number of employees actively contributing to open source projects on GitHub. In fact, Microsoft has double the number of open source contributors as the second most active contributor, Google. Despite this, developer respondents to DigitalOcean's most recent survey found Google, not Microsoft, as twice as friendly to open source. What gives?

SEE: Software licensing policy (Tech Pro Research)

A rich history of giving

First off, Google is a big contributor to open source, and has been for years. From the Google Summer of Code to its contributions to MySQL and a range of other projects, Google has been an active contributor. More recently, Google has built up copious quantities of goodwill with developers for its contributions of Kubernetes and TensorFlow. With each, Google has unlocked tremendous value for a broad swath of the developer population.

Even more impressively, Google managed these projects in such a way that they've become true community endeavors, and not a single-vendor exercise in vanity open source. Developers have noticed.

It's not surprising, therefore, that 53% of the more than 4,300 developers surveyed believe Google "embraces open source the most." Microsoft, for its part, pulled in less than half as many votes, at 23%. (Facebook nabbed 10%, while Amazon got a mere 4%. As for last place at 1%, well, that distinction went to Apple.)

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

And yet...Microsoft has also contributed a treasure trove of open source. It would be easy to surmise that developers simply don't know about Microsoft's open source projects, but as Brian Rinaldi has highlighted, a huge percentage of developers live in Microsoft's (open source) Visual Studio Code each day.

So, again, what gives?

Old perceptions die hard

Well, some would suggest that Microsoft's newfound love of open source is self-serving. Engineer Jeff Schroeder, for example, has noted: Microsoft has "prolific Linux kernel developers, but primarily just for Hyper-V, which makes Linux run well on Azure. A lot of their contributions (and Amazon's as well) are self-serving like that. It doesn't build as much goodwill as TensorFlow or Kubernetes."

This is likely true, though all corporate open source is similarly self-serving. Google isn't giving Kubernetes away like Halloween candy—there's a strategic purpose for it.

SEE: Why open source is so important to Microsoft (ZDNet)

Yet Microsoft is treated differently, and probably for good (or, rather, bad) reason:Maybe, just maybe, it comes to good old-fashioned animus, built up over years when Microsoft was The Great Satan.

Unfortunately, as Steven Vaughan-Nichols put it, "The perception of Microsoft as being the enemy of all things open source lingers on." Or, as Paul Ramsey more tartly stated, the reason for the lingering suspicion derives from "A generation of rabid hostility to open source! It takes a while to wash that off." Indeed, as Anaconda executive Mathew Lodge added, "It is still cool to hate Microsoft. Almost a badge of honor. I wrote a Quora answer about Microsoft's (successful) embrace of Linux for commercial reasons and it attracted very angry comments."

Despite years of good behavior, in other words, developers cling to an outdated view of Microsoft. This will almost certainly improve over time, but for now, Microsoft is having to work twice as hard to earn its reputation with developers. The good news is that the company seems fully committed to doing just that for as long as it takes. It is betting its future as a platform company on turning those developer perceptions around.

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (center in photo)

Image: James Martin/CNET

By Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.