December 6, 2020

Why I won't use Github for any new projects (and you probably shouldn't either)

There are these two sayings that go so horribly well hand in hand, 'those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it' and 'fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me'. Let's keep that in mind and add a 'told you so'.

In light of my recent two articles, it has been suggested that I could just bury my childish grudge against Microsoft and simply use Github to host my open source project(s). When I no longer have hosting costs, then I also no longer have a reason to earn money from them and Microsoft isn’t evil anymore anyway. They now even embrace open source software!


Story time

In 1983, Microsoft published MS Word, a tool to address an emerging problem: explaining to your wife why you had just thrown a month’s salary at a butt ugly piece of tech that’s now sitting on her couch table. “Look hun, we can use this to write letters to your mom”.

IBM PC 5150
We can do our taxes with it, the vendor said. Wouldn't that be great?

So, letters were written. Marriages were saved. and everyone could pretend this was a good investment. Word (and later Office) became synonym for ‘office productivity’ and everyone was happy. Minor catch though, none of that was exactly true. In reality, working with the software was anything but productive. Word was (and still is) absolutely rubbish at pretty much everything it was suppose to do. People, who did not subscribe to the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy eventually realized:

  1. Yes, printing glyphs on paper was simple, just as advertised. But writing a properly formatted letter (correct margins, full justifications, readable font…) is a horse of a different color. After a couple of futile attempts with the Space and Enter key, you quickly found yourself being upsold to training courses. So much for the ease of use promise.
  2. Training, of course, didn’t help with the fact that Word was notoriously fragile, running on an equally fragile OS. Back in the day, multitasking on Windows meant: being able to crash two programs simultaneously. Better save your document after every paragraph, hoping that the computer doesn’t crash in the process, corrupting the DOC file on disc.
  3. Office was sold as a fun and exciting product. If the prospect of loosing hours or even days of work due to crashes wasn’t already thrilling enough, you could always have fun with a number of silly security issues. For example, being send a DOC file containing a macro virus or accidentally sending out a DOC file containing the full edit history (including all those snarky draft remarks, you never intended the receiver to see).
  4. Were there alternatives to Word? Of course! Were they better? Well, they could hardly have been worse, but were you able switch? All your existing letters were stored in the propriety DOC format. Only Word could (properly) read them and wouldn’t offer export options save to the printer. Worse yet, everyone and their grandmother used Word and kept sending those DOC files around — in the version that came with their PC, not yours. Word was perfectly backwards, but not forwards compatible. Whenever one of your peers got a new computer, you knew it was time to upgrade yourself.

So, in a nutshell, people found themselves using a horribly buggy, insecure application with poor usability, locking their work away in a propriety file format while locking them in into an expensive update cycle at the same time. The Microsoft business model resolved around turning people into creators, becoming the gatekeeper to their creations and charge for access. Every Microsoft product is build around this concept and the entire portfolio is a clever spiders trap, upselling you ever deeper and deeper into the Windows ecosystem with baby steps.

So the fanboy cries

You arrogant dunce! you are making a silly strawman argument! We are talking Github here. Your source code isn’t locked away in any propriety file format with no way of exporting it. You can always clone your project and leave at any time. That’s the whole idea behind Git!

Yes, indeed, I can easily get all my project files, but how exactly would I …

  • Download the issue tracker (not the data, the service)?
  • Migrate my community?
  • HTTP 301 redirect all my backlinks?

No, Microsoft did not make a commitment to open source when buying Github. They just bought back access to developers they had lost by pissing them off for decades, in order to play the same old game all over again. Microsoft has not changed beyond getting a more diplomatic CEO. Their main strategy is still vendor lock-in, which is the antithesis (closed source is just the means to an end) to Open Source and cloud storage simply is the new proprietary DOC file format.

Foresightfully, I never used Github for anything more than storing source code, always fearing that it would eventually suffer the same fate as SourceForge, just to realize that even what little is there is already very hard to move and requires time I do not have to spare. So yes, what’s there is there. What’s new won’t be. Shame on me for falling for the same trick twice, even though I should have known better.