Back at the start of 2010, I attended linux.conf.au in Wellington. One of the events I attended was sponsored by GitHub, who bought me beer in a fine Wellington bar (that was very proud of having an almost complete collection of BrewDog beers, including some Tactical Nuclear Penguin). I proceeded to tell them that I really didn’t understand their business model and that one of the great things about git was the very fact it was decentralised and we didn’t need to host things in one place any more. I don’t think they were offended, and the announcement Microsoft are acquiring GitHub for $7.5 billion proves that they had a much better idea about this stuff than me.
The acquisition announcement seems to have caused an exodus. GitLab reported over 13,000 projects being migrated in a single hour. IRC and Twitter were full of people throwing up their hands and saying it was terrible. Why is this? The fear factor seemed to come from was who was doing the acquiring. Microsoft. The big, bad Linux is a cancer folk. I saw a similar, though more muted, reaction when LinkedIn were acquired.
This extremely negative reaction to Microsoft seems bizarre to me these days. I’m well aware of their past, and their anti-competitive practises (dating back to MS-DOS vs DR-DOS). I’ve no doubt their current embrace of Free Software is ultimately driven by business decisions rather than a sudden fit of altruism. But I do think their current behaviour is something we could never have foreseen 15+ years ago. Did you ever think Microsoft would be a contributor to the Linux kernel? Is it fair to maintain such animosity? Not for me to say, I guess, but I think that some of it is that both GitHub and LinkedIn were services that people were already uneasy about using, and the acquisition was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
What are the issues with GitHub? I previously wrote about the GitHub TOS changes, stating I didn’t think it was necessary to fear the TOS changes, but that the centralised nature of the service was potentially something to be wary of. joeyh talked about this as long ago as 2011, discussing the aspects of the service other than the source code hosting that were only API accessible, or in some other way more restricted than a
git clone away. It’s fair criticism; the extra features offered by GitHub are very much tied to their service. And yet I don’t recall the same complaints about SourceForge, long the home of choice for Free Software projects. Its problems seem to be more around a dated interface, being slow to enable distributed VCSes and the addition of advertising. People left because there were much better options, not because of idiological differences.
Let’s look at the advantages GitHub had (and still has) to offer. I held off on setting up a GitHub account for a long time. I didn’t see the need; I self-hosted my Git repositories. I had the ability to setup mailing lists if I needed them (and my projects generally aren’t popular enough that they did). But I succumbed in 2015. Why? I think it was probably as part of helping to run an OpenHatch workshop, trying to get people involved in Free software. That may sound ironic, but helping out with those workshops helped show me the benefit of the workflow GitHub offers. The whole fork / branch / work / submit a pull request approach really helps lower the barrier to entry for people getting started out. Suddenly fixing an annoying spelling mistake isn’t a huge thing; it’s easy to work in your own private playground and then make that work available to upstream and to anyone else who might be interested.
For small projects without active mailing lists that’s huge. Even for big projects that can be a huge win. And it’s not just useful to new contributors. It lowers the barrier for me to be a patch ‘n run contributor. Now that’s not necessarily appealing to some projects, because they’d rather get community involvement. And I get that, but I just don’t have the time to be active in all the projects I feel I can offer something to. Part of that ease is the power of git, the fact that a clone is a first class repo, capable of standing alone or being merged back into the parent. But another part is the interface GitHub created, and they should get some credit for that. It’s one of those things that once you’re presented with it it makes sense, but no one had done it quite as slickly up to that point. Submissions via mailing lists are much more likely to get lost in the archives compared to being able to see a list of all outstanding pull requests on GitHub, and the associated discussion. And subscribe only to that discussion rather than everything.
GitHub also seemed to appear at the right time. It, like SourceForge, enabled easy discovery of projects. Crucially it did this at a point when web frameworks were taking off and a whole range of developers who had not previously pull large chunks of code from other projects were suddenly doing so. And writing frameworks or plugins themselves and feeling in the mood to share them. GitHub has somehow managed to hit critical mass such that lots of code that I’m sure would have otherwise never seen the light of day are available to all. Perhaps the key was that repos were lightweight setups under usernames, unlike the heavier SourceForge approach of needing a complete project setup per codebase you wanted to push. Although it’s not my primary platform I engage with GitHub for my own code because the barrier is low; it’s couple of clicks on the website and then I just push to it like my other remote repos.
I seem to be coming across as a bit of a GitHub apologist here, which isn’t my intention. I just think the knee-jerk anti GitHub reaction has been fascinating to observe. I signed up to GitLab around the same time as GitHub, but I’m not under any illusions that their hosted service is significantly different from GitHub in terms of having my data hosted by a third party. Nothing that’s up on either site is only up there, and everything that is is publicly available anyway. I understand that as third parties they can change my access at any point in time, and so I haven’t built any infrastructure that assumes their continued existence. That said, why would I not take advantage of their facilities when they happen to be of use to me?
I don’t expect my use of GitHub to significantly change now they’ve been acquired.