Software

With GitHub acquisition, Microsoft wants to make Azure the default cloud for developers

Microsoft's acquisition of GitHub has some developers fuming, but it's arguably good for both Microsoft and those same developers.

Microsoft, which once hoped to kill open source, just plunked down $7.5 billion to buy GitHub, where most open source development happens. Back in the 1990s this would have been cause to believe the apocalypse had hit. Today, given that Microsoft is the world's largest open source contributor (measured, ironically, by employees on GitHub), there's reason to believe the acquisition just might work.

Not that everyone is excited by the prospect.

A marriage made in...

John Gamble, a developer based in Chicago, has his doubts about the acquisition: "This isn't the Microsoft of the 90s, but I still wouldn't trust it with Github." DevOps aficionado Aline Pêgas, however, is less sanguine: "If [Microsoft buys GitHub] I'll immediately migrate all of my stuff away from GitHub and close my account."

Others, like Windows admin Gary Williams are more ambitious with their protest votes: "If they take over [GitHub] I'm going to go live up the top of a mountain and never touch a computer again."

We'll miss you, Gary!

Not everyone is so doom-and-gloom about the acquisition, packing their belongings and moving to mountaintops (or GitLab, a rival service). Microsoft-friendly folks, like Jen Stirrup, think it will be "awesome."

Some in the open source development community, like Begin co-founder Brian Leroux, are also optimistic: "Microsoft could be a great steward for Github. [The] fascinating thing about the Microsoft turnaround is that it is largely cultural and not anchored in a particular product/brand strategy. [There is] lots to like about the new culture but one key is they are definitely open source allies."

SEE: Job description: Full stack developer (Tech pro Research)

Though some of the "nay" votes on the acquisition stem from deep-seated animosity toward Microsoft, earned during its antitrust years, others are simply worried that Microsoft will make GitHub mediocre. This hasn't been the case with Microsoft's acquisition of Mojang, makers of Minecraft; or Kaggle, a platform data science competitions, both of which have grown under Microsoft's leadership. As for LinkedIn, well, it arguably already was mediocre. Microsoft has neither helped nor hurt it.

Regardless, the Redmond giant has every reason to get such an acquisition right, and not merely to deliver an ROI on the multi-billion-dollar valuation. And that would be difficult as a straight financial play, as GitHub reportedly has struggled to turn a profit for some time. In reality, it's about developers.

Developers! Developers! Developers!

GitHub, after all, is where developers build the future, and Microsoft cares deeply about developers. It always has, of course, but for years lost its way.

With its cloud service, Azure, Microsoft finally unshackled itself from its Windows-only past and freed up space to care about open source, generally, as well as hitherto competitive projects like Linux, specifically. For this reason, Redmonk analyst James Governor intones, it's "not crazy" to see Microsoft buying GitHub, not when the prospect of using GitHub to drive more cloud workloads is in play.

Even this, however, strikes me as a bit too pointed. One thing Microsoft has demonstrated with Azure is that it understands there isn't a one-to-one relationship with its ecosystem investments. Microsoft spent years courting open source startups and projects to the platform, most of which was essentially marketing money to convince the world that Microsoft had changed. Along the way, Microsoft Azure became a first-class alternative to Amazon Web Services (AWS).

SEE: GitHub Learning Lab app helps developers get better at using the platform (TechRepublic)

Microsoft, in other words, doesn't need to brute-force GitHub into driving Azure workloads. And, indeed, the company was quick to insist that the acquisition is all about letting a thousand GitHub flowers bloom, whether on Azure or AWS or wherever a developer chooses to exercise her creativity. As noted in a Microsoft blog post:

Going forward, GitHub will remain an open platform, which any developer can plug into and extend. Developers will continue to be able to use the programming languages, tools and operating systems of their choice for their projects - and will still be able to deploy their code on any cloud and any device.

The more Microsoft appeals to developers, generally, the more those developers will choose to build on Azure, specifically.

So let's put some numbers around that theory. GitHub currently has 24 million users collaborating on code (and documentation, among other things), with over 80 million repositories. By owning GitHub, Microsoft doesn't "own" those developers or their source code repositories, but it does put itself into a position to better associate the Microsoft brand with open development. Is it worth $7.5 billion to make Microsoft the default cloud for today's developers? Absolutely.

Is it a sure thing? Absolutely not. But Microsoft has plenty of cash to spend on fleshing out different areas of its developer story, and GitHub will arguably be the crown jewel. Not everyone is happy, but it's doubtful that GitHub's 24 million developers are going to pack up their repositories and leave for alternatives. Instead, they just might discover they kind of like this new Microsoft overlord (same as the old overlord).

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Image: Microsoft/GitHub

About 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.

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