GitHub after Microsoft: How it has changed

The cloud and enterprise source-management platform is making up for lost time with new features and new pricing plans

Long a major hub of open source development, GitHub became part of Microsoft at the end of October 2018. Now helmed by one-time Xamarin CEO Nat Friedman, the cloud and enterprise source-management platform is making up for lost time with new features and new pricing plans.

Early in the acquisition process, Microsoft made it clear that it intended to let GitHub remain its own business, an independent subsidiary that would work with the rest of the company. That approach is nothing new for Microsoft; it’s how it manages both LinkedIn and Minecraft’s Mojang. Even so, ensuring that GitHub remains independent is essential for it to keep its place as a neutral hub for open source development, where individuals and companies share code with the community.

The change GitHub needed

Before the acquisition, GitHub was essentially leaderless; the previous CEO was in the process of resigning, and had been for some time. That uncertainty reflected in the product. Under Friedman, there’s more direction and a stronger focus on its users.

Although many observers expected GitHub to double down on Microsoft’s traditional enterprise users, instead it’s refocused on its open source community. That’s not surprising, because one of the key reasons for Microsoft buying the service was ensuring that it would have a long-term future as a hub for Microsoft’s own open source projects.

Microsoft had taken such a dependency on GitHub for .Net and for its languages that GitHub had become one of the key tools for its own developer community. By purchasing GitHub, Microsoft could ensure that GitHub didn’t run out of cash and that its own open source projects would be protected.

Expanding GitHub’s developer offering

One of the biggest changes has been a major shift around how GitHub handles private repositories. In the past, free users had a limited number of repositories and needed to shift to a Pro subscription if they wanted more. A Pro subscription wasn’t particularly expensive at $7 a month, but it was a hurdle that could be hard for developers to jump, especially if they were students or hobbyists.

Now, GitHub’s free tier includes an unlimited number of private repositoriesthat can be used by small teams to collaborate on small projects. If you want to work with more than three people, you still need to upgrade to Pro. There are other advantages to using Pro, of course: It adds tools to help understand how are project is operating, as well as GitHub Pages and a wiki for handling documentation.

There’s also been a rationalization of GitHub’s Enterprise product line. Enterprise Cloud used to be a hosted enterprise instance, while Enterprise Server gave businesses the option of self-hosting their own GitHub servers. Those two products have now been combined in a single product, with GitHub Connect linking on-premises and cloud repositories. This new approach simplifies building hybrid architectures, with one per-user-per-month license covering all your repositories.

Fixing GitHub: new tools and improvements

Perhaps the most important initiative under way is what GitHub is calling Project Paper Cuts, intended to reduce the niggles and minor issues that get in the way of day-to-day workflow. Begun before the Microsoft acquisition, it’s become an important way of showing that the GitHub platform is evolving beyond big-bang releases. Changes can be as small as shipping new emoji for reactions to commits or, more significantly, giving developers the option to mark notifications as unread. Small changes like these can be shipped faster as well, because they don’t impact the overall architecture of the GitHub platform.

GitHub is also working with Microsoft to improve integration with Microsoft’s developer tools. By adding GitHub features to tools like Visual Studio Code, you can work with your GitHub repositories without leaving your editor. That helps you stay in your workflow, without having to switch context by leaving your code to go to a web browser to manage a pull request. With the new Pull Requests extension for Visual Studio Code, you can manage pull requests directly, targeting branches and sending code diffs, as well as comments. Once you’ve made the request, you can track it from inside Visual Studio Code, seeing which of your requests have been integrated into a branch and getting details of why a request may have been rejected.

GitHub has been releasing regular updates to its own tools too. They include two major updates to GitHub Desktop. The latest release, GitHub Desktop 1.6, makes it easier to get started, giving hints on what to do once you’ve finished setup. You’re given suggestions based on your current GitHub usage, with a list of current repositories and the option of cloning one on to your local PC,or creating a new repository from scratch. You also get the option of adding any local Git repositories to your GitHub account.

What GitHub’s future looks like

Friedman has three goals for GitHub:

  • Ensuring GitHub is the best place to run productive communities and teams.
  • Making GitHub accessible to more developers around the world.
  • Improving its reliability, security, and performance.

Those are big ambitions, but the commitment seems to be real as evidenced by the rapid rollout of changes. By making lives easier for developers, Microsoft is going to make GitHub more attractive. That will let GitHub build on its community and gain the resulting network effects.

With major projects like LLVM migrating to GitHub, it looks like Microsoft’s stewardship of the service is gaining community acceptance. That’s important for GitHub, because it’s a service that’s as easy to migrate from as it is to migrate to. Friedman’s open source background helps here too, especially with the lessons he learned commercializing the Mono project at Xamarin.

Running a business that supports open source development needs a light touch and a sensitivity to the needs and requirements of modern application development. With Microsoft’s tenure at GitHub now three months old, there’s a definite sense of rejuvenation around the platform—and that’s a very good thing indeed.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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