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Author Topic: Microsoft’s purchase of GitHub leaves some scientists uneasy  (Read 52 times)
Hydrogen
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June 17, 2018, 07:44:34 AM
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They fear the online platform will become less open, but other researchers say the buyout could make GitHub more useful.

GitHub — a website that has become popular with scientists collaborating on research data and software — is to be acquired by Microsoft for US$7.5 billion. In the wake of the takeover announcement on 4 June, some scientists and programmers voiced concerns about the deal on social media. They fear that the site will become less open, or less useful for sharing and tracking scientific data, after the buyout. But others are hopeful that Microsoft’s stewardship will make the platform even more valuable.

GitHub launched in 2008, and is now widely used to store, share and update data sets and software code. As of 13 June, more than 223,000 academic papers on Google Scholar cited the website, which is free to use for projects that release their code. One of the features that sets GitHub apart from many similar websites is its use of version-control software known as Git, which transparently records changes to files. This allows programmers in different locations to work on the same project in real time, and to track changes and merge updated data. During the 2014–16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, researchers used the platform to share and cross-check daily patient counts.

Although Microsoft says GitHub will remain open to any project, some scientists are sceptical about that commitment. “Open Science is not compatible with one corporation owning the platform used to collaborate on code. I hope that expert coders in #openscience have a viable alternative to #github,” tweeted Tom Johnstone, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Reading, UK.

Björn Grüning, a bioinformatician at the University of Freiburg in Germany, says some researchers are wary of Microsoft because the company has been slow to make its own tools available in open-source code, or to make its services compatible with open-source projects. He has several projects on GitHub, but says he will move them to another service if the company makes the platform less open, forces Microsoft tools on users or changes its pricing model.


Mahmood Zargar, who studies open-source communities at the Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is more concerned that Microsoft will impose changes that make GitHub less efficient for him to use. He’s planning to move several projects to other services.

A spokesperson for Microsoft did not answer Nature’s questions about researchers’ concerns, but referred to a blogpost by company chief executive Satya Nadella. “We recognize the responsibility we take on with this agreement,” Nadella wrote. “We are committed to being stewards of the GitHub community, which will retain its developer-first ethos, operate independently and remain an open platform.” The post also states that the company will listen to developers’ feedback and invest in both fundamental features and new capabilities.

Unconcerned

Some researchers say that fears about Microsoft’s acquisition of the platform are overblown. “I’m not convinced that Microsoft owning GitHub is that big a deal to busy researchers,” says Arfon Smith, a data-science manager at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and a former GitHub programme manager. Smith, who began using the platform for his own research in 2009 and has more than 200 projects there, doesn’t think Microsoft will change the collaborative features that researchers care about, such as its ease of use.

Other scientists, such as Ruibang Luo, a bioinformatician at the University of Hong Kong, think Microsoft will use its resources to boost the platform’s user numbers, which would increase the number of potential collaborators. “Satya Nadella has done a good job opening up Microsoft’s products to competitors’ platforms,” he says. “So I’m willing to believe it’s a great deal, unless they prove me wrong.” Katy Huff, a nuclear engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also thinks GitHub will give Microsoft an opportunity to support science.

Decentralized systems

Daniel Himmelstein, a data scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says that GitHub is problematic for researchers, but that this has nothing to do with the Microsoft acquisition.

GitHub hosts repositories of code or data created by the open-source Git, which can be distributed among users, so the repositories themselves can still have backups if a server dies. However, certain information, such as comments on projects and requests to add code, are stored on GitHub’s website. Some of these data are an important part of the scientific record, says Himmelstein, but they are at risk from outages, surveillance or censorship. “Regardless of the Microsoft acquisition, GitHub, as a centralized and closed company, possesses a dangerous level of control over the open-source ecosystem,” he says.

Scientists face fewer threats, says Himmelstein, if they put their work on decentralized hosting systems, such as the git-ssb project, which don’t have a single point of failure. “To the extent that the Microsoft acquisition makes people aware of the centralized nature of GitHub,” he says, “that’s a positive thing.”

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05426-0

This could be similar to AT&T attempting to buyout Time Warner in that it could further centralize a market and represents a step towards greater monopolization within an industry. The potential for applying centralization versus decentralization paradigms to various aspects of economies, finance, business and politics could be an interesting topic and a good analytical framework for producing good science in terms of generating falsifiable predictions and relevent hypothesis.

This example might also show over the long term that heavily centralized abstracts are inversely opposed to good science, innovation and progress. A political need for centralized forms of control and regulation could be a form of "anti science". The same might be said of AT&T buying time warner which could be inversely opposed to net neutrality. Anyways maybe a good example of these things we'll have to see how things pan out.

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June 17, 2018, 09:26:24 AM
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A fair number of projects have tried moving to other platforms such as GitLab, but I don't think that it'll pierce GitHub's dominance.  Even if a huge amount of projects started moving away from GitHub, lots of older and seldom maintained projects would still be there.

Fortunately, I think that if any group of people is likely to attempt to avoid centralisation, it's developers.  In the long run, I'm expecting a fair number of established devs to move away from GitHub.

Microsoft seems to be buying up whatever they can at the moment.  Even if it seems fine at first, it's possible that they'll sink their claws into GitHub's existing system over the coming years.
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June 17, 2018, 11:45:38 AM
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If Microsoft start adding restrictions to Github, all that will happen is an open source rival to Github will spring up and the world will carry on.

Given how much Microsoft paid for Github, they will be careful not to do anything to devalue their investment.

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June 17, 2018, 11:50:55 AM
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If Microsoft start adding restrictions to Github, all that will happen is an open source rival to Github will spring up and the world will carry on.

Given how much Microsoft paid for Github, they will be careful not to do anything to devalue their investment.

Yeah indeed. If Microsoft does something like that then it would be bad for the crypto projects to evolve on and they may need to pay extra money to work over there. As being open source most of the contributors are doing the stuff almost free of charge, this wont be the case anymore as they will have to pay before they can start the work. However this is just internal feeling where microsoft acquire the rights and changes the open source fate to restricted one.


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June 17, 2018, 12:53:24 PM
 #5

GitHub has already made a name in the crypto industry, Microsoft bought it huge so they expect huge returns. Them restricting it would only force other projects to look for another platform. This would not be good for the business. Well i just hope they won't make a false move on restrictions on GitHub.

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June 17, 2018, 12:53:44 PM
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microsoft are big but they're not stupid.

they know perfectly well that if they started to meddle with github's parameters its value would be nil in no time at all. they're just as invested in keeping it healthy as the users themselves.
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June 30, 2018, 11:21:10 PM
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Truly understand their concerns. Even though Microsoft was a software development company at its core, it has been significantly diverted in the past years, and they lost grasp on many things.
Just look at what happened to Skype after being purchased by Microsoft. After being at the top of the charts for years, Skype has become a sub-par communication program at best and did not evolve at all. Not even mentioning terrible advertisements and constant spam..
GitHub should be worried, but at the very least they got a ton of cash.
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August 05, 2018, 10:07:59 PM
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microsoft are big but they're not stupid.

they know perfectly well that if they started to meddle with github's parameters its value would be nil in no time at all. they're just as invested in keeping it healthy as the users themselves.
This group has a strategic purpose. It's not as simple as we think they need to add something useful to them. Especially what makes them stronger and more developed, they will be stronger. Their purchase is intentional, and anyone interested is not important. As long as they have it, serve themselves is okay.
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