Image: The Verge

By Joseph Flaherty

Microsoft is acquiring GitHub for $7.5B in stock. What does it mean for the tech ecosystem and startups? Here are a few quick thoughts:

1. From Creepers to Coders to CEOs

The first coding project of a precocious programmer starting out today will almost certainly be a Minecraft mod. Once this engineer is ready to graduate from brick-based biomes, a GitHub profile is a natural landing place. After this up and coming engineer has mastered MongoDB, they might be tempted by management and the lure of LinkedIn. It’s not an entirely clear story, yet, but Microsoft is stitching together an exciting series of assets that stretch from Kindergarten to the corner office.

2. Is Microsoft using Apple’s 2001 playbook?

Apple’s renaissance in the early aughts is usually attributed to the stylish iMac and the revolutionary clickwheel of the first-gen iPod, but many forget, or underestimate, how important the release of a Unix-based OSX was in gaining share with the developer community. These developers were the “alpha geeks,” evangelized to the tech masses, and stocked the iOS app store in the early years.

Is Microsoft trying to run that playbook? As Apple and Google jockey to bridge the gap between office and home, as Microsoft did in the 1990s, Microsoft is doubling down on productivity and tools. Perhaps Karate Kid reboots, and partnerships with Steven Spielberg will distract Google and Apple from the boring business of software, giving Microsoft an entre to reassert itself?

3. Will a startup fill GitHub’s void? Or are network effects too powerful?

GitHub competitor GitLab saw a massive surge in project imports when the acquisition news broke over the weekend, but does this represent a real developer revolt or merely an act of protest that will be nullified by superior network effects? What’s the over/under on crypto-backed replacements that will seek to fill the void in the coming weeks?

4. Don’t fight the last war

Many predicted Apple would “lose” mobile to the more open Android alternative, based on how the Mac vs. PC battle played out. It seems like a similar line of thinking is at play here, that Microsoft is doomed to destroy what makes GitHub so unique. Here’s a good example of this thinking:

It’s a fair concern, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Under CEO Satya Nadella Microsoft has shed many, if not most, of its bad practices from the Gates/Ballmer era. Despite its impressive balance sheet, Microsoft is arguably in fourth place among elite developers in mindshare and tool usage.

Almost all elite developers use Apple hardware, and iOS is the key to the global software market. Gmail and Docs are preferred over the Office Suite and addressing Android is a must. After iOS, AWS are the three most important letters in tech.

Moreover, each of these companies has taken a substantial PR hit among developers over the last few years. Apple’s diminishing reputation for quality and continued hostility to developers irks many. Google is building killer drones for the government and selling personal data to the highest bidder, both of which turn-offs for sizeable segments of developers. Amazon is eating everything. All the while, Microsoft minds its business, quietly selling software and services, and unbelievably to someone who lived through the 1990s, is the underdog. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the narrative around Redmond to change dramatically.

5. Efficient entrepreneurship pays

Github raised $350M in VC, which is a lot of capital, but the founders put off taking investment for the company’s first four years, until they had built substantial value. I haven’t seen the most recent cap table, but that decision to put off raising will likely make the founders billionaires. The lesson? Patience pays dividends.

What’s next?

Open Source emerged as a reaction to the Microsoft hegemon in the 90s, now Microsoft is the owner of one of the biggest Open Source communities. Imagine explaining this headline to a techie who went into a coma in 1997. So what’s next?

A merger with Adobe and/or an acquisition of Sketch/InVision to make a play for the creative class that Apple is paying less and less attention to? Will Microsoft use it’s Xbox franchise and the Hololens to compete on the entertainment front? There are more questions than answers at this point, but for the first time in a long time, Microsoft is interesting.

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