On Monday morning, Microsoft announced that it had acquired the popular collaborative software development platform GitHub for $7.5 billion in Microsoft stock. The announcement was met with mixed reactions from the developer community. Some looked at the acquisition as inevitable and the only way to sustain a free platform that had grown as large as GitHub. Others saw it as the death knell for a neutral, community-driven platform that was the de facto home of open source software development.
Rumors of the acquisition first began circulating over the weekend, which led to a mass migration of GitHub projects to its competitor’s platform, GitLab. A real-time tracker on GitLab shows a massive spike in imported Github projects early on Monday morning, with over 13,000 projects being imported within a single hour. Yet GitLab’s CEO and co-founder Sid Sijbrandij said the mass migration has been going on for nearly a week. “Within the past seven days, we have imported nearly 50,000 projects,” Sijbrandij told me in an email. “We’ve scaled up the servers for GitLab.com three times already.”
GitLab was founded in 2011, just three years after GitHub. It billed itself as a fully free and open source alternative to GitHub that can be implemented on your own servers. This was a contrast with Github, which was a closed source platform and available on the web. (GitHub did invest significant resources in two notable open source projects, Electron and Atom.) Only a few years later, however, GitLab changed to an open core model, where a limited version of its software is free and open source and a more expansive version of its software is available on a paid-subscription model.
Although GitHub justified its closed source environment as a way to stay afloat as a business, Bloomberg reported that the company was struggling to find a way to generate revenue without charging its users for hosting their open source projects, which may have informed its decision to sell to Microsoft. GitLab, meanwhile, is mostly coasting on infusions of venture capital, leading some developers to wonder how it will manage to stay afloat as an open source project unless it can increase its paid user base.
Although 50,000 projects being transferred to GitLab is nothing to bat an eye at, it’s still a relatively small portion of the roughly 80 million projects hosted on GitHub. This mass migration seems to largely be a knee jerk reaction by some portions of the developer community who are afraid that Microsoft will mess with the platform or kill undesirable open source projects. These fears are not unfounded, given Microsoft’s historically adversarial position on open source software. In 2001, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously called Linux “a cancer” and expressed his distaste for open source projects.
Yet in recent years Microsoft seems to have made a 180 as far as its position on open source software is concerned. As Axios noted the company has increasingly embraced Linux following Ballmer’s departure in 2014. Ballmer was replaced with Satya Nadella who didn’t mince words about Microsoft’s new position when he said the company is “ all in on open source” following the GitHub acquisition. The acquisition also underscores Nadella’s plan to reorganize the company with an eye to becoming a leader in cloud computing and artificial intelligence.
What’s less certain is how Microsoft will address projects on GitHub that directly undermine its own services, such as this emulator for running Xbox games on Windows computers. There’s also projects on GitHub that can be used to directly harm others, such as DeepFakes, which allows users to plaster others’ faces on the bodies of porn stars. It’s hard to believe that Microsoft would continue to allow these sorts of projects to exist on GitHub, but this also begs the question of how it will draw the line on what constitutes acceptable content, a moderation question that has been a thorn in the side of many other major platforms like YouTube and Reddit.
Given Microsoft’s ostensible commitment to fostering open source projects going forward, a panicked mass migration from GitHub to GitLab may end up being premature. On the other hand, for those that are committed to independent software in an increasingly centralized internet environment, GitLab provides a worthy competitor to Microsoft’s latest acquisition.