With GitHub purchase, Microsoft buys the developer army it needs for the coming platform wars


It was no accident that Microsoft Corp. announced its $7.5 billion acquisition of open source code repository GitHub on Monday at about the same time Apple Inc. was going live with its major announcements keynote at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).

Microsoft pulled a similar stunt two years ago, announcing its even larger acquisition of LinkedIn for $26.2 billion on the same day of Apple’s WWDC keynote. The message that Microsoft is sending with its timing choices is clear – it’s jumping up and down, waving its arms at developers while shouting “We’re worth paying attention to.” More than that, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is recognizing that Microsoft’s most famous product today – Windows – may be the firm’s legacy, but not its future. In acquiring GitHub, Nadella is casting a vision of Microsoft as a platform company that is entrenched in a community of developers, and shoring up where the firm’s weaknesses lie.

In the press release announcing the deal, Nadella describes Microsft as “a developer-first company.” But some of its recent efforts to establish an attractive platform for developers have fallen short. The effort to build out ‘Modern’ Windows applications that are only available through the Windows Store lackluster. The number of apps available there hasn’t even been officially updated since 2015 (when it was 669,000) but by most accounts it’s only one-third of the size of the app stores offered by Apple and Google. The problem goes deeper than the number of apps on offer as well, as certain popular apps from other major developers remain absent. Also, many Windows users have the experience of trying a “Modern” app experience only to be disappointed and retreat back to using the legacy Windows version of the same app.

The Windows App Store problem is at least part of the reason that Windows RT failed. A version of Windows 8 that was built to run on low-powered processors that would be suitable for tablets with long battery life, it was featured on early versions of the Surface, and a few OEM devices. But OEM partners soon pulled out of supporting the lightweight alternative to Windows 8, and Microsoft’s last device featuring it was released in 2013.

To succeed the effort with Windows RT, Microsoft was promoting Windows 10 Mobile as its ARM alternative. Yet this version of the OS was tied to the ill-fated Nokia acquisition, and the attached Nokia Lumia devices featuring the software never broke through to relevancy on the mobile market. At the time, reviewers cited the lack of apps available to the platform as a major negative factor in its bid to compete with Android and iOS.

In other platform areas, Microsoft has fared better. Its Azure cloud infrastructure is considered a leader that rivals Amazon and Google in terms of providing high-quality content and support. At the IDC Directions 2018 event in Toronto in April, IDC Canada’s chief analyst Frank Gens said that the future of enterprise development would be centred around externally-provided platforms, and that Microsoft and Amazon were “good bets” for providing platforms that would be important circa 2021.

That’s because Microsoft is building both an app-centric platform (the less successful effort with Modern Windows apps) and a cloud-based platform in Azure (more successful). Now it has GitHub, an entrenched repository and management platform used by many developers. The potential lies in the ways to make it easy for those developers to deploy code to Microsoft platforms, while keeping GitHub’s platform agnostic approach intact enough to avoid a developer rebellion.

Under the terms of the deal, GitHub will continue to operate independently and keep an open platform. Microsoft says developers will continue to be able to use whatever programming language they choose to deploy code to any OS, any cloud, and any device. GitHub co-founder Chris Wanstrath writes in a blog post that Microsoft and GitHub have a shared vision of the future, where developers are more productive, and more people become developers.

Some developers are wary of Microsoft’s intents for GitHub.

While Nadella’s recent commitments to open source architecture have been well broadcast, skepticism remains in the developer community about Microsoft’s intents with GitHub. One Change.org petition titled “Stop Microsoft form Buying Github” has collected 1,300 signatures and counting since yesterday.

Microsoft may have bought the barracks, but if it wants the developer army not to desert as it wades into the platform wars it will have to tread carefully in making any changes.


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