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Microsoft Buys GitHub: The Good, Bad & Ugly

by Paul Arnote (parnote)

You really can't blame Linux users for viewing Microsoft with skepticism and with a wary eye. In 2001, then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, "Linux is not in the public domain. Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That's the way that the license works." And, it wasn't just Ballmer's words. Those words were backed up by "actions," with Microsoft attacking Linux with such tactics as sponsoring SCO's copyright attack on Linux to claiming that Linux violated unnamed Microsoft patents, to endless FUD assaults. Those underhanded tactics were even applied to Android, built around a Linux kernel. To this day, Microsoft still rakes in billions of dollars from those dubious intellectual property rights claims against Android. Ballmer has since "repented," and reports that he now "loves" Linux, according to a 2016 article on ZDNet.

Yeah. Right. Suuuuure.

Then, in 2014, Satya Nadella took over the helm as the Microsoft CEO. All of a sudden, we had a Microsoft top executive publicly declaring "Microsoft LOVES Linux." Microsoft joined the Linux Foundation as a platinum corporate sponsor and code contributor in 2016. They "open sourced" the .NET framework libraries in 2014. While Microsoft was the fifth largest code contributor to Linux when they joined, they don't even get a mention in the 2017 kernel report. Say WHAT?! This sounds like something from the "Twilight Zone" television series (your pick on which incarnation), right? Cue the music ... Do-do-do-do, Do-do-do-do. Certainly, Rod Serling would have fun with this one if he were still with us.

Indeed, Microsoft has employed the "embrace, extend, extinguish" way of doing business ever since the 1990s against technologies that competed with their idea of how things should go or work, coupled with their desire to completely control every market they were involved with. Given their way of doing business over the years, you couldn't fault anyone for feeling as if we are in the second stage of that credo. Let's hope GitHub doesn't go down the same path as Nokia, Hotmail and Skype. Instead, let's hope it goes more down a path similar to other Microsoft acquisitions, especially lately, like LinkedIn, where the transition has been seamless and quite calm. Most users don't even realize that Microsoft now owns LinkedIn.

So, the intense distrust among Linux users has deep, deep roots. Even if the tree has been trimmed back, it's not hard to imagine that many feel those deep roots may yet spring forth new vegetation. In a way, many view Microsoft's involvement with Linux as a proverbial "Trojan Horse."

Microsoft Buys GitHub

Yes, that bastion of open source development has been purchased by Microsoft for $7.5 billion (U.S.). Without a doubt, everyone has their price. Microsoft just gave the two guys who started GitHub 7.5 BILLION reasons to sell to what many call "the enemy." Reportedly, Microsoft paid 25 times annual revenue for GitHub, which is expected to take in $300 million in revenue this year.

At one point, Google was mentioned as a possible buyer for GitHub, but in the end, Microsoft won out, because of the current GitHub CEO's relationship with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. It is also widely thought that Microsoft's "style" is better aligned with that of GitHub, especially when it comes to collaborative coding and code sharing. GitHub has been an acquisition target for several years, not only by Microsoft and Google, but also (reportedly) Amazon, the Chinese company Tencent, and Atlassian.

It's unlikely that Microsoft will make any money directly from the purchase of GitHub. Many in the tech sector view it more as a goodwill gesture from Microsoft to the developer community, and an effort to create closer ties to the developer community. Plus, Microsoft is already one of the largest contributors to GitHub, making its purchase even more sensible.


As you might imagine, the reaction from GitHub developers and users has been quite mixed. The old distrust of Microsoft and Microsoft's motives has come roaring to the forefront.

Some GitHub developers immediately "closed up shop" and moved their open source projects to GitHub competitors and alternatives (which we'll list a little later on).

Still other developers have taken a more sensible "wait-and-see-what-happens" approach. The sale of GitHub to Microsoft won't be finalized until later this year, so many are just waiting to see what changes and what the fallout is before pulling up roots and moving.

Surprisingly, the Linux Foundation has been very supportive of Microsoft's purchase of GitHub. Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation, thinks that Microsoft's acquisition of GitHub is a good thing.

"The bottom line: This is pretty good news for the world of Open Source and we should celebrate Microsoft's smart move," says Zemlin in a Linux Foundation blog entry.

He continues:

"So what does this mean for open source? I expect generally good things. Microsoft has the means and the expertise to make GitHub better. They brought in Nat Friedman as GitHub's CEO, someone I have known for years and has been well-respected in the open source community for a couple decades. Nat is clear that Microsoft is walking their talk stating, "I'm not asking for your trust, but I'm committed to earning it. I can't wait to help make the GitHub platform and community that's special to all of us even greater." I believe he means it.

Should the open source community be concerned? Probably not. Buying GitHub does not mean Microsoft has engaged in some sinister plot to "own" the more than 70 million open source projects on GitHub. 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 (see the Kubernetes example above). And let's be quite clear – the hearts and minds of developers are not something one "buys" – they are something one "earns" (see Nat's quote above).

Why would Microsoft do this? It seems simple to me. Steve Ballmer was half right with his famous "developers, developers, developers" cheer (worth a re-watch here.) He just didn't factor in the "open source" developers that he famously discounted. Satya Nadella has righted that oversight in a spectacular way this week. Microsoft has always loved developers and wants to make a business of providing developers with great tools in order to help them to create great technology. It is literally their mission on the about page of their web site: "To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more." Today more than 28 million of those developers are on GitHub.

Why the sudden change? This is not a sudden change. Microsoft has become a top contributor to Linux and Kubernetes, they develop and distribute Linux-based products, they open sourced .NET, and they are backers of The Linux Foundation, the Apache Software Foundation, the Open Source Initiative and many similar efforts. Their commitment to open source has been active for years."

I recommend taking the time to read the entire blog entry. It may calm or ease some Linux users' fears. GitHub's current and outgoing CEO, Chris Wanstrath, posted a blog entry to help ease the fears of GitHub users and developers, as well. Although I was unable to find Wanstrath's actual blog post, the full post was reposted here.

Alternatives to GitHub

Like I mentioned before, I doubt anyone would question any Linux user's apprehension about Microsoft's GitHub acquisition. Linux users have reason to be fearful, given Microsoft's less than friendly treatment of Linux in the not-too-distant past. Those "wounds" are still relatively fresh.

So, for those who aren't waiting around to see what happens with Microsoft at the helm of GitHub, there are alternatives. Some of them might be quite familiar. Many of these GitHub alternative sites reported a 10-fold increase in traffic after the announcement of Microsoft buying GitHub.

The full list is available in an article over at the TecMint site. I'll list the alternatives below, but will send you over to the TecMint site for all the bloody details about each site.

  1. GitLab: probably the most likely replacement for GitHub. They just announced that they were moving off of Azure Cloud (a Microsoft product) to Google Cloud.

  2. Bitbucket: designed more for professional coding teams, education users and open source projects qualify for free accounts.

  3. Beanstalk: a powerful, secure and high-performance platform for managing source code repositories.

  4. Launchpad: ran by Canonical, the Mark Shuttleworth company supporting Ubuntu.

  5. SourceForge: a free open source software development and distribution platform built to specifically uplift open source projects. It is hosted on Apache Allura, and supports any number of individual projects.

  6. Phabricator: an open source application that helps software companies to create/build better software, which is built using PHP language and available under Apache 2.0 open source license for Linux, MacOSX, and can be run in any platform. It can even run in Windows, but it is totally based on Linux support. Phabricator has been used by Facebook before. The first version of Phabricator was built by Facebook with lots of features, such as reviewing and auditing codes, tracking bugs etc.

  7. GitBucket: an open source, highly pluggable Git platform that runs on JVM (Java Virtual Machine). It comes with features such as a repository viewer, issues tracker, pull requests, documentation and wiki, as well as a plugin system to extend its core features.

  8. Gogs: a free open source, lightweight, extensible and cross-platform self-hosted Git service that has minimal system requirements. It is easy to install, and tiny enough to run on a Raspberry Pi. Gogs is probably the easiest and fastest way to setup your own self-hosted code hosting solution for your open source project.

  9. Gitea: a free open source, easy to install, community managed fork of Gogs. It is also a simple and fast method of setting up a self-hosted Git service for open source software development.

  10. Apache Allura: an open source, flexible, extensible and pluggable project hosting platform, which was initially developed at SourceForge.

I wouldn't be surprised to see other code collaboration and code sharing sites appear in the wake of the GitHub purchase by Microsoft. One thing that has become abundantly clear during my time with Linux (now in my second decade) is how resilient and determined Linux users are.


It's incredibly easy to see and understand the initial reaction of some open source advocates to Microsoft's purchase of GitHub. Microsoft hasn't had a great track record of cooperation and collaboration with Linux until just very recently, and the wounds from all of Microsoft's attacks on Linux are still fresh, raw and unhealed.

Yet, if we are indeed witnessing a kinder, gentler, more sensible Microsoft under Satya Nadella, then it might make sense to wait a little longer and see how Microsoft's stewardship of GitHub plays out. But, quite simply, there hasn't been time for the dust to even settle. Heck, the sale hasn't even been finalized yet.

Even as optimistic as I want to be, there's still a bit of apprehension and skepticism in the back of my mind regarding Microsoft. Their history is one of trying to scorch Linux with a flamethrower. Frankly, I don't really know what it would take for me to trust Microsoft again, other than time for the wounds to heal and time to see the results of this kinder, gentler, more sensible Microsoft, if it is indeed real.

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