GitHub: The Bastion of Developer Independence

So, that’s it. GitHub was acquired by Microsoft. By the once defeated, changed, and re-incarnated, we-love-open-source, Microsoft. It seems like a logical move. Ironically, of most tech giants of the past decade, Microsoft somehow feels like the lesser evil, the choice you’d rather live with, when you weigh the alternatives:

When it comes to our commitment to open source, judge us by the actions we have taken in the recent past, our actions today, and in the future. […] We are committed to being stewards of the GitHub community, which will retain its developer-first ethos, operate independently and remain an open platform.

Satya Nadella

Yet, it is sad, you know. It is sad, because despite its organisational and financial issues, GitHub as an independent company meant independence for the open-source world. And, in the open-source world, independence is what you need more than anything else.

It is when people mix the term “independence” with services being “free” (as in “free beer”), when things go wrong. GitHub was born at a time when venture capital was by far the main way of building online products and services, without having to sacrifice one’s own money. The free-to-try nature of VC comes at the cost of growth for the sake of pure growth. If growth stops, so does the VC money. Consequently, if growth is the main driver a VC-funded business is striving for, the business has no other choice, but give away a significant portion of the product or service for free.

Yet, growth alone won’t pay the bills and employees’ salaries. Businesses need to break even to stay afloat, and GitHub makes no exception. No matter how much money came in from paying GitHub customers, I doubt that it barely managed to cover the infrastructure costs and payroll. It was time for GitHub to ask the rest of its users to chip in. I have said it several times that GitHub needs a basic 1$-a-month plan, targeting users that host, say, more than 10 public repos. These could potentially benefit from a couple of private repos as well, without having to step up to the more expensive plans. 1$ per user monthly sounds ridiculous, but I can assure you that this act alone would have brought $10-15 Million monthly, at the current rate of GitHub’s user base. Far from the Billion-dollar unicorn club, but perhaps just enough to sustain the vision.

We love open source, because we love sharing, but we also profit from open source, each and every day. Why shouldn’t then companies that make all of this possible take profit, in exchange for their financial independence? The road to financial independence is hard, but not impossibly so. The recent innovation in blockchain technology and smart contracts demonstrated that venture capital investment need not be reserved for only a few, but democratized and made accessible to anyone.

As for Microsoft, well, despite all of its efforts and goodwill, at the end of the day, it remains a business organization. Developers are only a portion of Microsoft’s customer base, and their happiness does not directly relate to more profits in the company’s bank account. In situations of doubt, the company will logically have to choose what is best for the business, and this might not necessarily be the best for the developer community.

Perhaps, it’s all for the better, let’s hope. I just have this uneasy feeling that a significant chunk of open-source collaboration online, now lies in the hands of a business conglomerate, where it would be one of the services in its portfolio. I would have felt happier, had it remained the single point of focus of a financially independent and prosperous entity instead.

But that’s just me. What do you think?