The Journal Gazette
Sunday, June 09, 2019 1:00 am

Microsoft wins over open-source skeptics

Dina Bass | Bloomberg News

In 2014, Microsoft cloud chief Scott Guthrie wrote up a proposal to acquire GitHub. Then he filed the plan away in a drawer. Every once in a while he'd take the plan out and look at it, and then return it to the cabinet.

Guthrie felt Microsoft just wasn't ready to acquire the popular open source company – a widely used digital hive where millions of software programmers collaborate on, share and store code. “We would have screwed it up,” Guthrie said. What's more, developers – many of whom viewed Microsoft as public enemy No. 1 for its attacks on freely distributed open-source software – would have rioted.

“The open source world would have rightly looked at us at the time as the antichrist,” he said. “We didn't have the credibility that we have now around open source.”

The company was still largely focused on its own software, completely created in-house and owned by Microsoft.

Since then, Microsoft has turned itself into one of the biggest developers of open-source software and has persuaded customers to trust applications built using rival tools and programs for Microsoft's Azure cloud-computing service, boosting Azure revenue and usage.

More than 60% of the company's team that works with cloud-app developers were hired for expertise in non-Microsoft programming tools or cloud services.

Last June, Guthrie and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella finally unveiled an agreement to acquire GitHub. One year later, the deal is noteworthy mainly for how little drama it's caused.

“Some people were upset, but few, because Microsoft had spent years building up goodwill with the open-source community,” said Matt Asay, an Adobe Inc. senior director who is a longtime open-source developer and previous Microsoft opponent.

Appealing to a wider swath of developers is important for Microsoft's growth. Tools and software that help engineers write programs generate a small portion of Microsoft's revenue, dwarfed by units like cloud services and Windows – but they lure users to the bigger businesses.

Winning over software developers is key to getting them to write apps from games to business software that dovetail with Microsoft products or that are housed in Microsoft's Azure cloud. Developers' hearts and minds have also been key to Microsoft's revived reputation as a technology leader.

“There are more developers today that Microsoft is being relevant to,” said S. Somasegar, managing director at Madrona Venture Group who spent 27 years at Microsoft, including running the developer division when it began increasing its focus on open source.

Since Microsoft's deal for GitHub, other tech giants have sought out ways to get closer to the open source community's roots.

When IBM Corp. agreed to buy Linux developer Red Hat Inc. for $33 billion last year, it raised some similar concerns for developers, even though IBM has been working on Linux projects for two decades. In announcing the acquisition, IBM took pains to assure developers that it would remain committed to Red Hat's open source work.

So far, Microsoft has done little to interfere with GitHub. Like Microsoft acquisition LinkedIn, GitHub has its own CEO and is run independently.

GitHub CEO Nat Friedman has told his team the needs of GitHub customers come first, even if they conflict with Microsoft's desire to promote its other products.

Friedman says his company has grown, too. In almost 12 months since Microsoft's purchase of the site was announced, the number of registered developers that called the site home has risen to 36 million from 28 million.

There are customers who worry that GitHub will slip into Microsoft's shadow. GitHub will have to fight that tendency, Friedman said.

“GitHub has to be neutral and GitHub has to be independent,” he said. “Developers want choice.”

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