Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of GitHub, the massive open-source code repository, is a major focus of tech-world conversation this week. Some pundits have taken issue with the purchase, pointing to Microsoft’s long, long history of attacking open source (former CEO Steve Ballmer is famous for referring to Linux as a “cancer”); others see it in a better light, citing Microsoft’s embrace of open source under current leader Satya Nadella.
Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation, is one of those who views the acquisition positively. “Buying Github does not mean Microsoft has engaged in some sinister plot to ‘own’ the more than 70 million open source projects on GitHub,” he wrote in a posting on the Foundation’s blog. “Most of the important projects on GitHub are licensed under an open source license, which addresses intellectual property ownership. The trademark and other IP assets are often owned by a non-profit like The Linux Foundation.”
More to the point, he added, “The hearts and minds of developers are not something one ‘buys’ – they are something one ‘earns.’”
If there’s one point of potential worry for some pundits, it’s that Microsoft could always change its strategy, with GitHub suffering the consequences. Microsoft has made big, splashy acquisitions in the past that crashed and burned, including Nokia, which was supposed to become the heart and soul of Microsoft smartphone manufacturing, but quickly devolved into a huge tax write-off with the abandonment of Windows Phone.
Microsoft has also taken a run at managing an open-source code repository before, with CodePlex, which it shut down in 2017 (after that, it partnered with GitHub on migration tools for those developers who still had projects on CodePlex). While Microsoft is stocked with very smart engineers and executives, that mass of collective brainpower hasn’t always translated into effective strategic decisions.
“Supposedly, this acquisition is part of a Microsoft’s growing focus on open source—but, it also enables the company to kill GitHub if Microsoft’s business model or CEO changes in future,” Rafael Laguna, CEO at Open-Xchange, told The Inquirer, voicing many critics’ concerns about the purchase.
For the developers who rely on GitHub as a code repository, there will likely be few—if any—shorter-term changes. With 85 million repositories and more than 28 million users over its history, the platform is too big to fail for the foreseeable future.