Microsoft bought GitHub. Now what?

Last Monday, a weekend of rumors proved to be true. Microsoft announced plans to buy code-hosting site GitHub for $7.5 billion. Microsoft’s past, particularly before Satya Nadella took the corner office a few years ago, was full of hostility to open source. “Embrace, extend, extinguish” was the operative phrase. It should come as no surprise, then, that many projects responded by abandoning the platform.

But beyond the kneejerk reaction, there are two questions to consider. First: can open source projects trust Microsoft? Secondly, should open source (and free software in particular) projects rely on corporate hosting.

Microsoft as a friend

Let’s start with the first question. With such a long history of active assault on open source, can Microsoft be trusted? Understanding that some people will never be convinced, I say “yes”. Both from the outside and from my time as a Microsoft employee, it’s clear that the company has changed under Nadella. Microsoft recognizes that open source projects are not only complementary, but strategically important.

This is driven by a change in the environment that Microsoft operates in. The operating system is less important than ever. Desktop-based office suites are giving way to web-based tools for many users. Licensed revenue may be the past and much of the present, but it’s not the future. Subscription revenue, be it from services like Office 365 or Infrastructure-as-a-Service offerings, is the future. And for many of these, adoption and consumption will be driven by open source projects and the developers (developers! developers! developers! developers!) that use them.

Microsoft’s change of heart is undoubtedly driven by business needs, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Jim Zemlin, Executive Director at the Linux Foundation, expressed his excitement, implying it was a victory for open source. Tidelift ran the numbers to look at Microsoft’s contributions to non-Microsoft projects. Their conclusion?

…today the company is demonstrating some impressive traction when it comes to open source community contributions. If we are to judge the company on its recent actions, the data shows what Satya Nadella said in his announcement about Microsoft being “all in on open source” is more than just words.

And in any acquisition, you should always ask “if not them, then who?” CNBC reported that GitHub was also in talks with Google. While Google may have a better reputation among the developer community, I’m not sure they’d be better for GitHub. After all, Google had Google Code, which it shut down in 2016. Would a second attempt in this space fare any better? Google Code had a two year head start on GitHub, but it languished.

As for other major tech companies, this tweet sums it up pretty well:

Can you trust anyone to host?

My friend Lyz Joseph made an excellent point on Facebook the day the acquisition was announced:

Unpopular opinion: If you’re an open source project using GitHub, you already sold out. You traded freedom for convenience, regardless of what company is in control.

People often forget that GitHub itself is not open source. Some projects have avoided hosting on GitHub for that very reason. Even though the code repo itself is easily mirrored or migrated, that’s not the real value in GitHub. The “social coding” aspects — the issues, fork tracking, wikis, ease of pull requests, etc — are what make GitHub valuable. Chris Siebenmann called it “sticky in a soft way.

GitLab, at least, offers a “community edition” that projects can self-host. In a fantasy world, each project would run their own infrastructure, perhaps with federated authentication for ease of use when you’re a participant in many projects. But that’s not the reality we live in. Hosting servers costs money and time. Small projects in particular lack both of those. Third-party infrastructure will always be attractive for this reason. And as good as competition is, having a dominant social coding site is helpful to users in the same way that a dominant social network is simpler: network effects are powerful.

So now what?

The deal isn’t expected to close for a while, and Microsoft plans to seek regulatory approval, which will not speed the process. Nothing will change immediately. In the medium term, I don’t expect much to change either. Microsoft has made it clear that it plans to run GitHub as a fairly autonomous business (the way it does with LinkedIn). GitHub gets the stability that comes from the support of one of the world’s largest companies. Microsoft gets a chance to improve its reputation and an opportunity to make it easier for developers to use Azure services.

Full disclosure: I am a recent employee of Microsoft and a shareholder. I was not involved in the acquisition and had no inside knowledge pertinent to the acquisition or future plans for GitHub.

An alternative history of Microsoft

Microsoft released their latest quarterly results two weeks ago, and the news was good for them. They beat analyst expectations for the third consecutive quarter, but perhaps the more important part was the cloud revenues. Up nearly 100%, Microsoft’s cloud business continues to get stronger. That’s very important for their future growth.

You could say things are going pretty well in the three years since Satya Nadella took the corner office. The market certainly seems to think so. Microsoft stock is up 68% since Nadella took the helm. This is compared to the 38% increase for the Nasdaq composite index. His predecessor Steve Ballmer had a less stellar record. In 14 years under Ballmer, Microsoft’s stock price fell 37%. He did have to deal with both the dot-com bubble burst and the Great Recession, but the Nasdaq managed to recover, up about a percent and a half over the same period.

Microsoft stock price under Ballmer

Microsoft stock price (blue) and Nasdaq composite (red) from January 2000 to February 2014.

Microsoft stock price under Nadella

Microsoft stock price (blue) and Nasdaq composite (red) from February 2014 to February 2017.

There’s more to a company than its stock price, of course. Ballmer oversaw a 215% increase in net income. During Ballmer’s tenure, Microsoft launched XBox and the enterprise business (e.g. Exchange and SQL Server). The Azure offering that is driving much of the Nadella-era growth started during Ballmer’s reign as well. Of course, the Ballmer era also saw failed attempts to enter markets: the Zune music player, Windows Phone — as an OS as well as the Nokia acquisition.

An alternate history

As an open source software enthusiast, the “new” Microsoft’s good-faith entry into the open source world is the most interesting change. Whereas Ballmer called the GPL a “cancer”, today’s Microsoft is embracing open source (albeit under permissive licenses). Microsoft has opened .NET, ported SQL Server and Powershell to Linux, and has partnered with Red Hat and Canonical on various efforts. So what if Ballmer never happened?

…After moving many of their products to an open core model, Microsoft saw its dominance continue. Apple gained a toehold in the desktop market with OS X, but was never able to make serious inroads. When the iPod became a runaway success, they got out of the computer business altogether. Meanwhile in the server market, Unix was giving way to Linux. Microsoft saw this trend and developed a new server operating system based on the Linux kernel. Some of the UI improvments made it back to the Linux ecosystem and 2005 was officially declared the Year of Linux on the Desktop. Seeing the success of the Microsoft-backed Linux, Mark Shuttleworth disbands his young company and focuses on returning to space. He eventually partners with Elon Musk to help fund early SpaceX efforts. By 2017, industry analysts begin seeing Amazon’s cloud offering as a serious competitor to Microsoft Azure…

Back to reality

Okay, so maybe that’s not how it would have played out. Maybe Microsoft would have come to dominate the smartphone and tablet instead of Apple. Maybe they’d have a terrible CEO who would drive the company off a cliff. Cynics would say that Microsoft is only embracing (without extending and extinguishing this time!) open source because they’re struggling to remain relevant as technology paradigms shift out from underneath them. Maybe the cynics are right. As with all counterfactuals, we’ll never know, but Microsoft’s investors have to wonder “what if?”

Linux and Microsoft: a “deal with the devil”?

When Microsoft and the Linux Foundation announced that Azure certification will require passing a Linux exam, it caused a great disturbance in the Force. The FOSS Force, specifically. In a column, editor-in-chief Christine Hall called the partnership a “deal with the devil.” In a news roundup, Larry Cafiero said “[r]ather than throw the Microsoft that is treading water a life preserver, I still think throwing it an anchor would be more fitting.” Larry is a personal friend of mine, and he and Hall have both been covering open source since before I got my first computer. I can’t just dismiss their opinions out of hand.

Open source enthusiasts have every right to be leery of Microsoft. Former CEO Steve Ballmer famously said Linux is “a cancer” and the company was openly hostile to the Linux project specifically and open source generally for many years. And yet, Microsoft seems to be sincere in its efforts to participate in open source projects (even if it’s still a little bit two-left-footed).

Hall said Microsoft loves Linux “because [Microsoft] can sell it”. So what? Even Red Hat loves being able to sell Linux. Azure CTO Mark Russinovich told the audience at All Things Open this year “ if we don’t support Linux and open source in our cloud then we’ll be a Windows only cloud, and that would not be practical.” Yes, it’s absolutely in Microsoft’s self-interest to play nicely with the open source world. While the Year of the Linux on the Desktop is always just out of reach, Linux is firmly entrenched in the enterprise.

Microsoft may have (as of this writing), roughly 29 times the market capitalization of Red Hat, but it’s obvious that open source has “won”. And yet, elements of the community are stuck in the scrappy underdog mindset. If we want to pretend that we’re a meritocracy, we have to be willing to allow our former enemies to become…if not friends, then at least collaborators. If Microsoft is willing to play by the rules, then let’s let them.

Forget what Hall wrote earlier this month. Let’s go with what she said in October: “However, it might be time to tone down the anti-Microsoft rhetoric a bit and give them a little breathing room. If we give them enough rope, we can see if they hang themselves, or if they use it to strengthen their ties with the open source community.”

Cloud detente

Evident.io founder and CEO Tim Prendergast wondered on Twitter why other cloud service providers aren’t taking marketing advantage of the Xen vulnerability that lead Amazon and Rackspace to reboot a large number of cloud instances over a few-day period. Digital Ocean, Azure, and Google Compute Engine all use other hypervisors, so isn’t this an opportunity for them to brag about their security? Amazon is the clear market leader, so pointing out this vulnerability is a great differentiator.

Except that it isn’t. It’s a matter of chance that Xen is The hypervisor facing an apparently serious and soon-to-be-public exploit. Next week it could be Mircosoft’s Hyper-V. Imagine the PR nightmare if Microsoft bragged about how much more secure Azure is only to see a major exploit strike Hyper-V next week. It would be even worse if the exploit was active in the wild before patches could be applied.

“Choose us because of this Xen issue” is the cloud service provider equivalent of an airline running a “don’t fly those guys, they just had a plane crash” ad campaign. Just because your competition was unlucky this time, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be the lower next time.

I’m all for companies touting legitimate security features. Amazon’s handling of this incident seems pretty good, and I think they generally do a good job of giving users the ability to secure their environment. That doesn’t mean someone can’t come along and do it better. If there’s anything 2014 has taught us, it’s that we have a long road ahead of us when it comes to the security of computing.

It’s to the credit of Amazon’s competition that they’ve remained silent. It shows a great degree of professionalism. Digital Ocean’s Chief Technology Evangelist John Edgar had the best explanation for the silence: “because we’re not assholes mostly.”

Who’s competing with whom?

In Sunday’s Lafayette Journal & Courier, the USA Today section included an article by Matt Krantz comparing Microsoft and Apple. He treats the two companies as arch rivals, comparing them to the Cola War participants and to the longstanding animosity between fans of Ford and Chevy pickups. And he wasn’t wrong 20 years ago, but he is now. The OS wars are, if not entirely over, at least in a state of permanent cease-fire. Microsoft has very clearly won in volume; Apple turns a handsome profit. With the move toward a browser-based world, the OS on desktops and laptops is becoming increasingly irrelevant to mainstream consumers.

Indeed, the desktop and laptop are becoming less relevant (though not irrelevant, despite the slower sales in recent years). Over half of Apple’s Q3 2014 revenue came from iPhone sales. Macs (and the attendant Mac OS X) were a mere 15% of revenue. Apple could completely abandon the PC market tomorrow and still be fine. They’re clearly in the mobile device (and services) business today. Sure, Microsoft has a mobile offering. I’ve used a recent Windows Phone and it was pretty nice. But Microsoft is competing with Apple in the mobile space the same way that Apple is competing with Microsoft in the desktop OS space. As a hint, it’s the same way that this blog competes with Ars Technica.

If Apple is a mobile company, then who are they competing with? The obvious answer is Google. While Google doesn’t really do devices, they control the Android ecosystem (although the degree of control is debatable). Steve Jobs was willing to declare “thermonuclear war” on Android. I’m not aware of him harboring a similar hatred for the Windows Mobile devices that existed many years before.

I mentioned this on Twitter, and Krantz argued that Google is an ad company, whereas Apple and Microsoft are “technology companies”. The distinction is lost on me. Technology is such a broad term that it is effectively meaningless. And while Google may derive most of its revenue from advertising, it’s only capable of generating that revenue because of the technology it produces and acquires.

There’s just not much meaningful competition between Apple and Microsoft these days. Both of these companies compete with Google, but in different spaces. The recently-announced partnership between Apple and IBM may bring Apple back into competition with Microsoft, but that remains to be seen.

So what are the lessons here? First: just because a guy has a money column in USA Today, that doesn’t mean he understands the technology (overly-broad term used intentionally) industry. Second: just because you were once bitter rivals with a company (or a person), you may not stay that way forever. Third: it is very important to be aware of who is in the space you want to be in so you can do it better than they do.

 

Microsoft’s Mac products

There’s a lot of hate out there for Microsoft.  Some of it is deserved, some is mere fanboyism.  For my own part, I generally avoid Microsoft products where I can.  It’s not that I absolutely refuse to touch anything that comes out of Redmond, but there are generally free-er and better tools available to accomplish the same ends.  Still, there are some things Mircosoft does very well.  Apple support is not one of them.

Now, I understand that Microsoft and Apple are competitors in some sense.  (I would argue that Microsoft is a software vendor and Apple is a hardware/ecosystem vendor, but that’s another discussion).  To some, it might be surprising that Microsoft has any Apple offerings at all, but the reality is that it is in their best interests.  Macs, especially the laptops, are becoming more prevalent in enterprise settings (especially in education, where Apple has long enjoyed a higher-than-average market share).  In order for Microsoft to keep their death grip on the lucrative enterprise environment, they need to make sure their products can continue to be used.

Unfortunately for the user, Microsoft does not seem to have put much effort into their Apple offerings.  Whether this is by choice or by circumstance, the end result is the same: people can’t get work done.  At the risk of sounding like a cynical anti-Microsoft zealot, I’m going to guess that this is an intentional move.  It does make short-term sense, after all.  By making gestures, Microsoft can be seen as playing nicely, but when things don’t work as well as they do on Windows, people will have no choice but to abandon Apple.

Now, I can’t speak to the Office products very much.  Outside of Access, I’ve barely touched Office 2007, so I don’t know to what degree it is crippled compared to the Windows versions.  I do know that VBScript is not supported in Office 2008, which causes all kinds of problems for some Serious Business(tm) in Excel.  Check boxes in Excel sheets also seem to not print, which is a bit of a hassle when I go to turn in an absence form.  Of course, Access doesn’t even have a Mac counterpart, which wouldn’t bother me except I have yet to find the time to migrate our inventory database out of Access and into something more platform-independent.  This leaves me stuck with running a virtual machine or keeping a Windows box on my desktop any time I want to do something with the inventory.

My big gripe today, and in general, is with Entourage.  It is a pretty lousy e-mail client, although 2008 is an improvement over 2004.  Entourage is a little bit on the clunky side.   For IMAP accounts, Apple Mail would be my choice.  Exchange support is the one feature that give Entourage a raison d’etre in the first place, and it is lacking in a few key areas.  The worst failing is the lack of support for Exchange tasks and notes.  Because my Blackberry has great Exchange support, it would be really nice if I could make notes on my to-do list and have them show up in Entourage.  I can’t.  Since I’m primarily at my desk all day, I primarily use Entourage for my to-do list.  This means I’m stuck without it if I don’t have my laptop with me.  (Or I have to switch to a third-party app, which isn’t that appealing either).

The other complaint is the lack of support for Outlook .pst files.  I’m not that big a fan of .pst files in Outlook either, but I accept they’re a necessary evil.  Regardless of my feelings on .pst in general, it seems silly that Entourage only supports a different (non-Outlook compatible) file format.  Mail storage is a tricky business anyway, and I just prefer to use an IMAP account when I need extra storage space.  That way it is compatible with any modern mail client.

So now that I’ve complained about Entourage, here’s the whole point: the Evolution groupware client supports Microsoft Exchange better than some Microsoft products do.  Imagine my surprise when I was setting up Evolution on my Linux box only to discover that not only did my e-mail and calendar synch, but my to-do list did, too!  I about keeled over from the shock.  This is where Microsoft needs to pay close attention to what others are doing.  If other vendors support your products better than you do, that is a Bad Thing(tm).

Fortunately for Microsoft, getting Entourage working on the Mac isn’t as simple as the Linux side.  Using fink gets you caught in a web of dependencies that don’t seem to be resolvable as of this writing.  Novell issued a Mac build that installs okay, but I’ve had problems getting it to enable an Exchange account.  I’m not the only one with this problem, as the bug report indicates, but the solution that worked for others so far has not worked for me.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep hoping that Microsoft improves the next version of office, or that better competitiors will come forth.