Microsoft bought GitHub to rebuild developer trust, says new CEO

The reason Microsoft bought GitHub is in order to regain the trust of the developer community, the forthcoming CEO has said.

The motive behind the $7.5 billion acquisition was revealed as part of a wide-ranging Reddit AMA by Nat Friedman, the Microsoft executive who has been named as the future CEO of GitHub once the deal closes at the end of the year. Friedman was the co-founder and CEO of app development platform Xamarin until its acquisition by Microsoft, and now holds a position as corporate vice president of developer services at the software giant.

Friedman said that the reason Microsoft believes GitHub is so valuable is that the developer community is quickly expanding, as is the influence devs have on important decisions. This puts GitHub in a good position to grow as a business, he said, but also given Microsoft an excellent way to try and rebuild its somewhat tarnished reputation among developers.

"The biggest upside for Microsoft is to earn the trust of a new generation of developers who have mostly not grown up on Microsoft technologies," he said. Our intent is that in a couple of years, people who use GitHub will see that it is better than it was before we bought it, and that will earn Microsoft the right to be considered for everything else that we do."

Microsoft faces an uphill battle in convincing the developer community that it represents a safe pair of hands to trust with GitHub. Many have expressed concerns regarding the potential for aggressive monetisation, snooping on users' code and forced integrations with Microsoft's other products and services, and some programmers have even begun to migrate to alternative code-hosting platforms such as GitLab or Bitbucket.

While he said he was sad to see them go and hoped they would return, he praised the fact that Git gives devs the flexibility to migrate so easily. He also noted that the small number of users who have migrated or closed their accounts is "extremely small... and more than made up for in new signups" over the past week.

Friedman made efforts to assuage the doubts of the community as part of the session. He stated that Microsoft's prior dismissal of open source - which culminated with then-CEO Steve Ballmer calling Linux "a cancer" - is firmly in the past, and that its prior rejection of the technology was based on "fear". He asked that Microsoft is judged on its recent support of open source, and pointed to the company's acquisitions of Minecraft and LinkedIn as evidence that a company can be bought by Microsoft whilst still retaining its independence.

He also addressed some of the community's more specific concerns. He confirmed that Microsoft would not be pushing GitHub users to log in with a Microsoft account, and said that "if anything, we may decide to add GitHub as a login option to Microsoft". He further stated that users should not expect to see ads appearing in public GitHub project repositories.

In addition, Friedman pledged ongoing and indefinite support for both GitHub's Atom code editor and Microsoft's Visual Studio Code editor - "for as long as there is a healthy community of people who love each of them". He also plans to stick to GitHub's existing roadmap, with investment in improving areas like the platform's internal search functionalities.

One of the more persistent questions has been around how tolerant a Microsoft-owned GitHub would be of morally and legally questionable repositories such as codebases for emulators or anti-firewall tools, but Friedman said that users shouldn't expect any major changes. "GitHub has a policy against illegal and disrespectful content already which we plan to support," he said. "Beyond that, we won't actively moderate content or take responsibility for what people post".

Friedman repeatedly reiterated Microsoft's stated commitment to doing right by GitHub's user-base, and said: "if Microsoft screws this up, we will lose the trust of developers for a generation."

"We bought GitHub because we appreciate how special it is. That's why we have two principles for this acquisition going forward:

"Developers first. We will evaluate every decision through the lens of what is best for developers. This includes GitHub's status as an open platform with open APIs that any developer can use to extend GitHub's functionality. And it includes our commitment that we will support developers on GitHub in their use of any language, any license, any operating system, any device, and any cloud.

"Independence. We are not buying GitHub to turn it into Microsoft; we are buying GitHub because we believe in the importance of developers, and in GitHub's unique role in the developer community. Our goal is to help GitHub be better at being GitHub, and if anything, to help Microsoft be a little more like GitHub."

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.

Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.

You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.