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Here’s what GitHub developers really think about Microsoft’s acquisition

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Now that the dust has settled on the big news of Microsoft’s plans to acquire GitHub, developers have had a chance to react. Some are shocked, others are welcoming the move, and most seem to be waiting to see what will happen once the deal closes later this year. While Microsoft has attempted to calm some of those shocked reactions, there’s still a lot of nervous anticipation about what will happen to GitHub in the long run. Microsoft is buying developer love and a giant community with its $7.5 billion GitHub deal, and it can’t afford to mess it all up. Microsoft’s actions will determine if the community sticks with GitHub in the future.

Much of GitHub’s success relies on the community it has built, encouraging even big companies like Facebook and Google to participate in open-source projects with the rest of the dev community. I’ve been speaking to some of the GitHub community to get a sense of how Microsoft’s acquisition news has gone down.

“The GitHub acquisition was sadly inevitable,” explains Victor Felder, a software engineer involved in many open-source projects on GitHub. “It could have been Google, Apple, Amazon, or Facebook. It doesn’t really matter. In my opinion, the problem is making these tech giants concentrate even more power.”

That power is obvious with the GitHub community. Microsoft is now acquiring a large code repository that has become very popular with developers and companies hosting entire projects, documentation, and code. There are 85 million repositories hosted on GitHub, and 28 million developers contribute to them. That’s a lot of people to keep happy.

“They’re definitely the one that can pull this off,” says Sebastiaan van Stijn, an engineer at Docker and maintainer of Moby. “Microsoft has a strong history in creating great developer tools; acquiring GitHub could be their approach to bring that expertise online. With Microsoft’s focus towards open source, I’m positive, but also realize that it takes time for such a cultural change to reach every part of the company; old habits die hard, so time will tell.”

Those old habits only date back 10 years when Microsoft was being accused of secretly attacking Linux with patent battles, or when former CEO Steve Ballmer labeled Linux “a cancer” back in 2001. It’s easy for developers to remember these recent examples, and a lot of them fear Microsoft as a result. “I think a lot of people are overreacting,” says Anna Henningsen, a member of the Node JS technical steering committee. “There’s no real reason to panic. Microsoft and its culture have moved far from what was 10 or 20 years ago.” Developers aren’t forced to use GitHub. In fact, some have switched over to rival GitLab as a result of Microsoft’s plans. “I don’t expect all that much change for 99 percent of GitHub users,” Henningsen suggests. “GitHub is going to stay GitHub, and I don’t think it’s meaningful to speculate about course changes for the platform at this point.”

Still, some are understandably worried about the future and how Microsoft plans to use its $7.5 billion investment. “While I trust that Microsoft plans to take good care of the GitHub product itself, I am worried about what ways they may try to monentize all the data they now have about how developers work and relate to each other, how software projects are built and maintained,” explains Kyle Simpson, JavaScript author and trainer. “Github was a very good steward of this important data, and we trusted them. Maybe too much. But I’m not sure I trust Microsoft on that front.”

Chris Wanstrath, Github CEO and co-founder; Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO; and Nat Friedman, Microsoft corporate vice president of developer services.

Microsoft’s big question to answer is what return it expects from a $7.5 billion investment. Shareholders and GitHub users will be watching the acquisition very closely in the months and years ahead. Microsoft needs to treat GitHub like a LinkedIn or Minecraft, not like Skype, Nokia, or aQuantive. “That amount of money is going to demand some real value,” says Simpson. “GitHub’s paid services aren’t enough to account for that value. I doubt that even tighter integration with Azure and other Microsoft services is enough to account for it. But that data certainly is, and I strongly suspect at least some inside Microsoft know that.”

Microsoft hasn’t said what it plans to do with that all important data, but Microsoft’s future GitHub CEO Nat Friedman has promised, “We are not buying GitHub to turn it into Microsoft.” The company says it expects the acquisition will add revenue but not have a significant impact on earnings per share initially. Microsoft’s acquisition looks like a strategic purchase to win back developer interest, rather than a product that will drive revenue by itself.

Alongside LinkedIn, Microsoft now has a big amount of insight into developers and the tech industry job market. It’s a position that might make competitors a little uneasy. Apple, Facebook, Google, and many other big tech companies use GitHub, but will they continue to do so in the future?

“GitHub is where the open source community comes together, and we’ve enjoyed using it to publish and promote projects like PyTorch and React,” says Facebook spokesperson Travis Reed. “As long as GitHub remains a great place to share our projects and collaborate with the open source community, we’ll continue to use it.”

The Verge also reached out to Apple to comment on its GitHub plans, but the company did not respond in time for publication. A Google spokesperson says, “We do not comment on ongoing acquisitions across the industry.” It’s likely that most of these big tech companies will take the same approach as Facebook, sticking with GitHub as long as it remains the best place to collaborate with the developer community. Many of Google’s engineers are very active in the open-source community and on GitHub, and it would be surprising to see that change.

TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2014 - Day 2
GitHub co-founder Chris Wanstrath.
Photo by Brian Ach / Getty Images for TechCrunch

There were rumors that Google tried to buy GitHub, though. Reports suggest that GitHub founder Chris Wanstrath chose Microsoft because of his relationship with CEO Satya Nadella. “My feeling is that Microsoft and Google have pretty different ideas of open source,” explains Henningsen. “My impression is that Microsoft’s style aligns better with the general idea of GitHub, which is (to me) about making coding collaboratively and publishing code more easily accessible.”

Microsoft has been making strides in publishing its own code, and it’s the biggest contributor to GitHub, making the platform an obvious buy. “Buying GitHub is a long-term, strategic move,” explains Matteo Collina, a principal architect at nearForm and member of the Node JS technical steering committee. “We have worked closely with Microsoft for several years now and their contribution has been critical for some of the most-needed innovations in Node.js.”

Those contributions have left Collina feeling “relatively optimistic” about the future of GitHub under Microsoft. “I do not know Microsoft’s plans for GitHub, but I expect a bright Open Source future.”