Microsoft's recent acquisition of Github has made waves through developer communities, sparking questions about what it will mean for the future of the site, and for the future of open source software itself.
Some welcomed the move as necessary for the guaranteed future of Github given its shaky revenue model and lack of steady leadership, while others lamented the fact that Microsoft could theoretically use the move to peek at proprietary code hosted by rivals on the site. There were even a flurry of exits, with developers shifting their code onto rival sites like Gitlab.
Of course, the move makes sense for Microsoft, which will now be ingrained within the most active developer community the world has ever seen, used by an estimated 28 million developers and currently housing billions of lines of open source code.
Because although Microsoft was helmed by a director, Steve Ballmer, who described the open source ecosystem, Linux, as 'a cancer' back in 2001, it has undergone much development since then under the guidance of new CEO, Satya Nadella. He has overseen Microsoft's sharp, 180-degree pivot on the matter of open source software, updating the party line to 'Microsoft loves Linux'.
Now, Microsoft is in fact the most active contributor on GitHub. "Microsoft is a developer-first company, and by joining forces with GitHub we strengthen our commitment to developer freedom, openness, and innovation," Nadella said of the acquisition. But while anyone can post open source code on the site for free, users must pay to keep code private. Microsoft developer and founder of the open-source programs Mono and GNOME, Miguel de Icaza, said: "Satya looked at Microsoft's bill from all the code we host on GitHub and figured it would be cheaper to buy the company."
Although Github will surely benefit from the massive resources and business expertise of Microsoft, will the conglomerate be able to honour the core values of a platform that launched with the tagline 'social coding' and is credited for encouraging the collaborative approach to software that now permeates developer communities and tech organisations?
"People used to spell Microsoft with the dollar sign instead of the S because it was all about making money, and getting money out of people; but they've really turned around," says Sam Jarman, professional developer and long-time user of Github, who works with both open source and proprietary software. "I think that they'll definitely be able to put developers best interests at heart. I think with a lot more resources GitHub will be able to deliver features that developers have actually been asking them for."
But Microsoft's U-turn on the issue of open source and its acquisition of Github isn't only decisive for the future of that particular platform, but for the future of open source itself. The concept of open source software came into existence 20 years ago, but has been slow to gain traction until the past few years. Could Microsoft's acquisition of Github carry important implications for the evolution of open source software and its uptake within an enterprise environment?
In many diverse areas, open source software has already become the de facto foundation. After all, the operating systems employed in data centres and IoT devices are open source. Container orchestration platform Kubernetes is open source, while open source is the basis for container platform Docker. And open source software such as Hadoop and Kafka is powering big data. Emerging technology is also going down the open source route, with platforms TensorFlow and MXNet forming the base of AI and machine learning technologies. These developments have caused some to predict that in the future, open source software will come to eclipse its closed-source proprietary cousin.
This may be premature, but there is however, more evidence that tech companies are embracing an increasingly open, collaborative model for software development. For example, Apple. "Apple has a programming language called Swift that iOS developers use, and now anyone who likes Swift or has an interest in it can propose a feature - doesn't even have to write the code - just proposes it, what it should look like, how it should work, and then the community can vote on that, and it will get implemented and released," says Jarman.
This inclusive approach is also embodied by Github welcoming less technically skilled people on board. For example, they have created features for use within a learning setting and are making it easier to code too with the launch of Atom, simple code editor and GitHub Desktop, a git client, which make it easier for non-experts to try their hand.
APIs are another way that different organisations can share information and intelligence. Although some have criticised this approach to collaboration as inadequate, and characterised by a lack of commitment to the developer communities they engage with.
"Certainly with APIs, we're going to go into a massively connected future. So almost any company that has data or ability to change data from one form into another, or process it, or add insights to it, will be using API's," says Jarman.
"Take IBM smart cities for example - lots of sensors all over cities all over the world feeding in data weather, temperature, humidity, traffic conditions, camera feeds. Which then gets processed and delivered to the dashboards to the right people at the right time. That's all gonna be API driven."
An increasing number of companies are developing around a core powered by Github and developer communities. Among companies that have integrated Github, 'inner-sourcing' is a much-discussed topic, which effectively involves adopting a model of open source that is built within the outer borders of the company - similar to how companies are building the principles of blockchain into closed ecosystems.
"As for open source I think, if it has to be proprietary because it's intellectual property and the company has solved some problem that they want to keep to themselves, it's probably going to be proprietary. But I think more companies will start to experiment with open source because the industry is demanding it," says Jarman. "Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Google, they've all open sourced a lot of stuff in the last couple of years because the market is so much more interested in open source."
Some landmark open source projects include the Hyperledger, a collaborative project involving more than 200 organisations (including IBM and Intel) advancing business blockchain solutions by, 'creating enterprise-grade, open source distributed ledger frameworks and code bases.' Another is Openstack, a free and open source software platform for cloud computing.
Increasingly, platforms are likely to be open source, although the applications built on top of them remain mostly proprietary. As Apache Software Foundation director Bertrand Delacretaz points out, "Open source works best for infrastructure software," and "as you go up the layers [of the software stack] it's harder to agree on things."
But could the wider adoption of open source software mean anything greater about business and society? Some have been keen to make ideological links between the democratic, collaborative nature of open source development and post-capitalist, or socialist ideals. Github and other open source approaches encourage the free exchange of information and transparency of the kind prevented by proprietary software, where knowledge is restricted from being shared outside private channels of knowledge.
"I think anthropologically speaking, humans do want to collaborate, and for the last five, 10 years it's been hard to do this with code. Internet connections have been slow or weak, programming languages have been different and it's hard been to communicate," says Jarman.
"Now with all these tools, people from all around the world are coming together, from very diverse backgrounds, and actually working together to build cool stuff. I wouldn't want to say if it leads to a more anti-capitalist or communist states, but I think technology holds a mirror to society - the good and the bad - and this is an example of a good thing. People do want to work together, they are working together, and they are producing great things."