Three Takes On Microsoft Acquiring Github

from the confused-ideology dept

As you almost certainly know by now, earlier this week Microsoft announced that it was acquiring Github. There’s been plenty of hand-wringing about this among some. Microsoft has a pretty long history of bad behavior and so many of the developers who use Github don’t have much love or trust of Microsoft, and thus are perhaps reasonably concerned about what will happen. While I’m disappointed that another interesting independent company is being snapped up by a giant, I’m not completely convinced this will be a bad thing in the long run. Microsoft is a fairly different company than it was in the past, and there are reasons to believe it should know enough not to fuck things up. Alternatively, if it does fuck it up, it’s really not that hard for a new and innovative company to step into the void (and certainly, others are already jockeying for position to attract disgruntled Github users).

For this post, however, I wanted to point to three different reports in reaction to the news — because I was fascinated by all three of these takes. More specifically, I found two of them thought-provoking, and one laugh-inducing. And it made me realize just how poorly many non-specialized reporters understand the stuff they’re reporting on, while how those who have a really deep and implicit understanding of things provide so much greater insight. Let’s start with the laugh-inducing one, before moving on to the thought-provoking. The hilariously bad take is found as an editorial in the Guardian, which has already been corrected once for falsely claiming that Github was open source software, rather than that it hosted open source software (among other things). But the really insane paragraph is this one:

GitHub, by contrast, grew out of the free software movement, which had similar global ambitions to Microsoft. The confused ideology behind it, a mixture of Rousseau with Ayn Rand, held both that humans are naturally good and that selfishness works out for the best. Thus, if only coders would write and give away the code they were interested in, the results would solve everyone else?s problems. This was also astonishingly successful. The internet now depends on free software.

Confused ideology? Mixture of Rousseau with Ayn Rand? What the fuck are they talking about? And then after noting how free software has been phenomenally successful, it then says this:

But the belief that everyone coding would solve anyone?s problems has been shown up as completely ludicrous. If anything, computer literacy has declined over the generations as computers have got easier to use. In the heyday of Microsoft, almost everyone knew some tricks to make a computer do what it should, because almost everyone had to if they wanted to get anything done. But hardly anyone today has the first idea of programming a mobile phone. They just work. That?s progress, but not in the direction some idealists expected. Significant open source software is now produced almost entirely by giant commercial companies. It solves their problems but could be said to multiply ours. Huge cultural and political changes are presented as technological inevitabilities. They are not. The value of GitHub lies not in the open-source software it hosts, which anyone could copy, but in the trust reposed in it by users. It is culture, not code, that?s worth those billions of dollars.

The whole piece seems premised entirely on a near total misunderstanding of the reasons why people use Github, the ethos of free software, and well… just about everything. Of course it’s culture that’s important… but it’s so odd that this editorial goes out of the way to insult a strawman culture it believes permeates Github, while then claiming that it’s what’s valuable.

So let’s move on to the better takes. I’ll start with Paul Ford who is, hands down, the absolute best, most thoughtful, insightful and thought-provoking writer about technology issues around. His piece for Bloomberg Businessweek, entitled GitHub is Microsoft’s $7.5 Billion Undue Button is truly excellent. It not only does one of the best jobs I’ve seen in explaining Github for the layman, but does so in the context of explaining why this deal makes sense for Microsoft. Amusingly, I think that Ford is making the same point that the Guardian’s editorial was trying to make, but the difference is that Ford actually understands the details, whereas whoever wrote the byline-less Guardian editorial clearly does not.

GitHub represents a big Undo button for Microsoft, too. For many years, Microsoft officially hated open source software. The company was Steve Ballmer turning bright colors, sweating through his shirt, and screaming like a Visigoth. But after many years of ritual humiliation in the realms of search, mapping, and especially mobile, Microsoft apparently accepted that the 1990s were over. In came Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella, who not only likes poetry and has a kind of Obama-esque air of imperturbable capability, but who also has the luxury of reclining Smaug-like atop the MSFT cash hoard and buying such things as LinkedIn Corp. Microsoft knows it?s burned a lot of villages with its hot, hot breath, which leads to veiled apologies in press releases. ?I?m not asking for your trust,? wrote Nat Friedman, the new CEO of GitHub who?s an open source leader and Microsoft developer, on a GitHub-hosted web page when the deal was announced, ?but I?m committed to earning it.?

But perhaps most interesting in Ford’s piece is that, while it understands why Microsoft is doing what it’s doing, it’s also a bit wistful of how he’d always kind of hoped that Github would become something more — something more normal, something that applied to much more of what everyone did. While it doesn’t directly say it, it does imply that that dream probably won’t happen with Microsoft in control.

I had idle fantasies about what the world of technology would look like if, instead of files, we were all sharing repositories and managing our lives in git: book projects, code projects, side projects, article drafts, everything. It?s just so damned???safe. I come home, work on something, push the changes back to the master repository, and download it when I get to work. If I needed to collaborate with other people, nothing would need to change. I?d just give them access to my repositories (repos, for short). I imagined myself handing git repos to my kids. ?These are yours now. Iteratively add features to them, as I taught you.?

For years, I wondered if GitHub would be able to pull that off?take the weirdness of git and normalize it for the masses, help make a post-file world. Ultimately, though, it was a service made by developers to meet the needs of other developers. Can?t fault them for that. They took something very weird and made it more usable.

The final thought provoking piece comes from Ben Thompson at Stratechery, who sees the clear business rationale of Microsoft’s decision. Microsoft built its entire business as a platform for developers (who it sometimes treated terribly…). But as we’ve moved past a desktop world and into a cloud world, Microsoft has much less pull on developers. Github brings it tons and tons of developers.

Go back to Windows: Microsoft had to do very little to convince developers to build on the platform. Indeed, even at the height of Microsoft?s antitrust troubles, developers continued to favor the platform by an overwhelming margin, for an obvious reason: that was where all the users were. In other words, for Windows, developers were cheap.

That is no longer the case today: Windows remains an important platform in the enterprise and for gaming (although Steam, much to Microsoft?s chagrin, takes a good amount of the platform profit there), but the company has no platform presence in mobile, and is in second place in the cloud. Moreover, that second place is largely predicated on shepherding existing corporate customers to cloud computing; it is not clear why any new company ? or developer ? would choose Microsoft.

This is the context for thinking about the acquisition of GitHub: lacking a platform with sufficient users to attract developers, Microsoft has to ?acquire? developers directly through superior tooling and now, with GitHub, a superior cloud offering with a meaningful amount of network effects. The problem is that acquiring developers in this way, without the leverage of users, is extraordinarily expensive; it is very hard to imagine GitHub ever generating the sort of revenue that justifies this purchase price.

Thompson’s piece (among many other good insights) suggests why developers might not need to fear Microsoft’s ownership, because of all the potential acquirers, Microsoft probably has the least incentive to ruin Github:

This, by the way, is precisely why Microsoft is the best possible acquirer for GitHub, a company that, having raised $350 million in venture capital, was possibly not going to make it as an independent entity. Any company with a platform with a meaningful amount of users would find it very hard to resist the temptation to use GitHub as leverage; on the other side of the spectrum, purely enterprise-focused companies like IBM or Oracle would be tempted to wring every possible bit of profit out of the company.

What Microsoft wants is much fuzzier: it wants to be developers? friend, in large part because it has no other option. In the long run, particularly as Windows continues to fade, the company will be ever more invested in a world with no gatekeepers, where developer tools and clouds win by being better on the merits, not by being able to leverage users.

My own take is somewhere between all of these. As soon as I heard the rumor, I started thinking back to the famed Steve Ballmer chant of “Developers, Developers, Developers!”

Microsoft has always needed developers, but in the past it got them by being the center of gravity of the tech universe. A huge percentage of developers were drawn to Microsoft because they had to develop for Microsoft’s platform. That allowed Microsoft to get away with a bunch of shady practices that certainly created a bunch of trust issues (Facebook might want to take note of this, by the way). Nowadays, in the cloud world, Microsoft doesn’t have that kind of leverage. It’s still a massive player, but not one that sucks in everything around it. And, it does have new leadership that seems to understand the different world in which Microsoft operates. So it will be interesting to see where it goes.

But, as someone who believes in the value of reinvention and innovation among the tech industry, it’s not necessarily great to see successful mid-tier companies just gobbled up by giants. It happens — and perhaps it clears the field for something fresh and new. Perhaps it even clears the field for that utopic git-driven world that Ford envisions. But, in the present-tense, it’s at least a bit deflating to think that a very different, and very powerful, approach to the way people collaborate and code… ends up in Microsoft’s universe.

And, as a final note on these three pieces: this is why we should seek out and promote people who actually understand technology and business in understanding what is happening in the technology world. The Guardian piece is laughable, because it appears to be written by someone with such a surface-level understanding of open source or free software that it comes off as utter nonsense. But the pieces by Ford and Thompson actually help add to our understanding of the news, while providing insightful takes on it. The Guardian (and others) should learn from that.

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Companies: github, microsoft

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Comments on “Three Takes On Microsoft Acquiring Github”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Way back when, I hosted my code on a server running CVS. Then along came SourceForge with repositories and an affordable build system, so I moved to that. Then SourceForge got bought by a company that decided the best way to survive was to monetize, and everyone (including me) moved to GitHub.

Microsoft should be smart enough to realize this is one place where they can’t leverage vendor lock-in. The only way they can keep developers is by providing a good product. The only way they can leverage the product is by providing powerful integration to other Microsoft products and services, like Google has done with GMail and Google Docs.

One thing I DO see happening is Microsoft merging GitHub with Microsoft Teams so that they have one unified repository system and collaboration platform. Who knows? They may even integrate it with Visual Studio and Microsoft Office.

That brings back memories of doing document backup and tracking using Microsoft Source Safe back in the 90s — we had the tools, and it worked. But MS has the opportunity to do something so much better now… I hope they make the right decisions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It was owed, and long overdue. Let’s not forget Microsoft’s purchase of Virtual PC, after which the company (to almost no one’s surprise) then proceeded to remove support for non-microsoft operating systems, the existence of which was the main reason many people were customers of Virtual PC in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is really just a question if Microsoft can actually make a service that they acquire useful.

Their track record on this is poor and only part of their staff (ie. the Azure staff) seem “all-in” on open source software and Linux. I have no idea what the rest are thinking, so I can’t really trust the move.

You can’t erase Extend, Embrace, Extinguish from the Linux user’s mind, or take away all the people saying they’ve been screwed by the Windows operating system, yet again. If they were doing more than just Azure as a “good” thing, maybe I’d change my mind, but it would take a lot of time; decades, probably.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Microsoft track record

… so Microsoft leadership has had a grand awakening and now embraces open source software & corporate transparency & love of all mankind (?) MS has suddenly changed its spots? Sorry, but I need a lot more convincing (and less speculation on that, given MS history.


“Microsoft is a developer-first company, and by joining forces with GitHub we strengthen our commitment to developer freedom, openness and innovation,” said Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft. “We recognize the community responsibility we take on with this agreement and will do our best work to empower every developer to build, innovate and solve the world’s most pressing challenges.” ??

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

only part of their staff (ie. the Azure staff) seem "all-in" on open source software and Linux

Yeah, the statement that they’re "all in" is obvious bullshit. Even Azure isn’t—where’s the repository where I can download its source? How about GitHub? People have been bitching that it’s closed for years, so if Nadella wanted to make this claim, releasing that (or committing to do so) would have been a way to convince people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Unfortunately, GitLab doesn’t seem prepared for the current onslaught; last few times I tried to move a GitHub repo over to it, it went totally unresponsive on me. Also, GitLab’s servers are in the Netherlands (good) and Russia (questionable), so you’d likely be leaving an excellent service with a questionable future to join a questionable service with a questionable future.

Another Anonymous Coward says:

My worries

Looking at existing Microsoft products, they seem to be either so simplistic they’re useful, or so feature rich but poorly implemented as to be useless (unless you spend all your time working with them). Hopefully, neither will happen to github. Plus, their development products like C# seem to encourage really poor choices, making good implementations hard to accomplish without a great deal of discipline.

The second concern I have is that they’ll try to integrate it into their existing products, and make it next to impossible to use from other means of access.

Then, there’s Microsoft’s penchant for abandoning things that fall out of favor with them, and on to the next great thing.

For me, I’ll wait and see what happens when the dust settles.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re Paul Ford Article

Putting everything in Git is a potentially wonderful idea. However, to take full advantage of its capabilities requires putting everything into a text format. Then you can do diffs to find out what has changed from one version to the next, and also do reliable merging of branches.

Consider the version-tracking features available in current office suites: these are very simplistic compared to what Git offers. The reasons why they can’t take advantage of Git are:

  • Binary document formats don’t allow easy use of diff-comparison/patching tools
  • The users are nonprogrammers who don’t understand Git.

Now you know why programmer types are now quite fond of text-based documentation formats like Markdown.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Trust: Difficult to build, trivial to destroy

Unfortunately for MS it seems they’ve got a… less than pleasant history and reputation, and that’s not something that just goes away because you changed some people at the top. If they want people to trust them it’s going to take work, until then people are going to see the company through the lens of what it’s been like and done before.

Hugo says:

Re: Re: Trust: Difficult to build, trivial to destroy

Their future CEO for GitHub seems all to aware of this. He did an AMA at reddit (for chrissake) in which he plays very straight.

Q: Why do you think Microsoft has previously rejected the idea of open source software?

A: Fear

I am a total GNU/Linux nerd and have no love for M$, but this guy seems to understand what he’s playing with.

PS: nice article, Mike.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Trust: Difficult to build, trivial to destroy

I would say “impossible” to build in this case.

After the buyout, I cannot reasonably expect the code I upload to be the code the consumer downloads. Redmond has been wired into the U.S. intelligence apperatus for decades. I can’t use Github anymore without conceding my right to refuse participation in government action, regardless of my politics. And that is really all that needs to be said.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: Re: I cannot reasonably expect the code I upload to be the code

That’s probably the least of your worries. If any company were to try to subvert one piece of the Open Source infrastructure, it would not be Git. Git stores SHA-256 hashes for every single item in the repo, chained together across the commit history. This makes it very impossible to sneak in hidden modifications to a public repo, without Git itself complaining that something is amiss.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I cannot reasonably expect the code I upload to be the code

“That’s probably the least of your worries”

If you control the download server, you can insert your patches as the last commit on the fly without validating with the original author, or disassemble and reassemble the patches on the fly prior to download. You would notice if you were a contributor, but if you were a consumer it is doubtful.

The changes wouldn’t persist, but the patches could certainly be linked to specific user accounts so that the MIM happened to the same targeted users, every time.

Or at least that is how I understand it. But it isn’t really a factor, since GIT will soon be proprieterized into MSGIT, in which case the auth features will be disable-able by autoupdate, on a per-user selectable basis any time Redmond or Langly chooses.

And while not trivial, I believe it is certainly practical given the existing infrastructure.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 you can insert your patches as the last commit

“But then the SHA-256 hashes would not agree with the same repo available from elsewhere.”

How many github authors keep more than 1 foreign repo? How many people check the sums against a second foreign repo before compiling? (yes we all should, but who does?)

My expectation is that the majority of downloads on github are not for SCM, but for builds.

“Not if you get it from the horse’s mouth”

What makes you think msgit and the newfangled MSGithub is going to be backwards compatible?

This buyout is EXACTLY what it looks like. The magic of git is not going to prevent it from being exactly what it looks like. Windows 10 tells you everything you need to know about new management at MS, and the respect that they have for consumer civil rights.

What fixes it might be a peer-to-peer implementation of something like github, so that multirepo validation is compulsory. Like a github/torrent or github/freenet hybrid or something. That way all FOSS developers can provide redundant repos for all other FOSS developers by means of a small disk cache, or a secure mission specific appliance.

This event is a silicon valley version of the national socialist party taking over your public library. And yes, that is intended to godwin this thread.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: Re:5 MSGithub is going to be backwards compatible?

Because they’re already haemorrhaging users as it is. It is in Microsoft’s interest not to destroy GitHub completely.

How many github authors keep more than 1 foreign repo?

What do you mean by “foreign”? Git makes it easy to keep multiple copies of repos all over the place. And like I said, the hashes make it easy to verify those copies against one another.

Seegras says:

Re: ItsNotThePast

Like this: Last year. Microsofts new German headquarters are now in Munich.

Or this: Microsoft gets a “prize” for spying on their users. This year.

These aren’t the actions of a benevolent company. These still are the ones of a predator.

Rekrul says:

Re: ItsNotThePast

So many posting from past perspectives and overlooking the present. Microsoft isn’t Ballmer’s Microsoft, Microsoft isn’t Gates Microsoft.

This is leadership and board that stepped back, looked at their failings after their antitrust and corrected.

It’s still a for profit business isn’t it? Microsoft isn’t buying Github so that it can keep it running out of the goodness of its heart. It’s buying it because it thinks it can get some kind of a benefit from it. And if that benefit doesn’t materialize, they will just shut it down.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: It's still a for profit business isn't it?

Even that’s debatable. By all accounts, GitHub has been losing money hand over fist. It’s hard to see how it could have been worth US$7.5 billion.

A lot of these acquisitions seem to be about top management building empires, rather than about actual business opportunities that might benefit shareholders.

Rogs (user link) says:

is this a joke, Mike?

~Microsoft is a fairly different company than it was in the past, and there are reasons to believe it should know enough not to fuck things up~

You do recall how all of us who fought against backdoors in MS products in the 90s and forwards were called “conspiracy theorists”?

And now, MS10 is widely called “a box of NSA spywarez”right?

…..poor Mike, so loyal, so faithful…to what here? Fight On!

We the people .need a new Github…

Oh: typo?

Github brings it tons and tons of developers. ” “

Rogs (user link) says:

Re: Re: is this a joke, Mike?

Anything to say on substance? No? Then f@ck off.

But since you seek derailment:

MS10 as total backdoored spyware(revealed time and time again in every sane media, anywhee,ever) is no conspuiracy theory.

Move along little anonymous flaming sh!tbag, move along.

And theres ZERO theory other than neocon strategists, crisis PR, and military propaganda operations online, every day, monitoring, cyberstalking,andworse.

But youbetcha theres conspiracy at the highest levels- there ALWAYS IS. We call it political policing in the US,but everywhere else its called corruption and secret policing.

And conspiracies of silence about Americas/FVEY/JTRIG/PsyOps, an a free speech crisis; or police/FusionCenters/FBI/DHS/DIA targeting,and attacking speakers online, in real time. So badly in fact that they kill democracy at the switch.

Then, there is the direct empirical evidence that trolls(you,in his case) frequently precede the disappearing activists online, as agencies stalk and harass them offline(Ferguson,for example; Ramsey Orta; or the 2 million Google searchesfor gangstalking in NYC, that curiously spike during election cycles.

Then, theres Facebook spying,police brutality,and well hidden flaming sh!tbags(like you) attempting to surveill and derail discussion,and pure speech online.

Sure.its a theory. Sure it is.
I bet you work in hasbara,right?


Great Reads from The Atavist online(nominated best magazine journalism f 2015): The story of WhiteBoyRick, a frame job in Detroit where a child was both an inter-generational target, framed by the FBI, and dirty cops.

Sure organized gangstalking is a theory. Sure it is.

David says:

Microsoft is a different company

Microsoft is a fairly different company than it was in the past,

Sure thing. The old company would not have said "excuse us, we really thought you wanted it" every of the dozens of times in a row it screwed over its customers by forcing Windows 10 updates onto them when they blinked in yet a different manner.

So I expect them to be friendly and apologetic while screwing over GitHub users over and over and over again. Makes for better press.

David says:

Excuse me?

But as we’ve moved past a desktop world and into a cloud world, Microsoft has much less pull on developers. Github brings it tons and tons of developers.

How does it "bring them tons and tons of developers"? The GitHub personnel is basically developer-neutral since they are needed for running the site unless you deprioritize running the site properly.

The people storing their projects on GitHub don’t magically come into reach for Microsoft unless Microsoft starts fucking with the user communication and/or privacy and/or licensing and/or accessing stuff they are not entitled to. Now I am pretty sure that this is quite in line with what they will end up doing, but your piece is supposedly in defense of Microsoft.

So please explain: in what respect does acquiring GitHub bring Microsoft "tons and tons of developers" unless it is going to dive head first into that $7bn cookie jar in a manner that will make a huge difference and make it harder for tons and tons of developers to pursue their own goals rather than Microsoft’s?

Chris Pratt (profile) says:

This is actually very simole

The handwringers don’t seem to realize two very important things. First, GitHub was bleeding cash. The only choices were acquisition or a new round of VC funding. However, opening the books for that would have not only raised doubt for new investors, but potentially chased current ones off, as well. Regardless, without one of or the other there would not even be a GitHub for much longer. Second, Microsoft is GitHub’s single largest user.They have systematically moved all of their development platforms there: .NET Framework, .NET Core, ASP.NET Core, issue tracking, even things like VS Code and their developer documentation.

What this boiled down to was that GitHub was in trouble, and Microsoft is now hugely dependent on GitHub. They could either buy it and control their own future or sit back, let it be acquired by someone else, and potentially be beholden to some other company, likely a competitor.

Now, they will surely push it on Enterprise customers and try to make it profitable or at least self-sustaining, but they have a vested interest in keeping it the robust community it is. Microsoft is indeed a different company now than in the past. Open-source is hugely important to them, and in many ways they can’t survive without it. The work the GitHub community has committed to it’s developer tools and platforms is measureless and most would not exist without them. The Microsoft of today is fully aware of this.

David says:

Re: This is actually very simole

First, GitHub was bleeding cash. The only choices were acquisition or a new round of VC funding.

Well, that is the principal problem with VC founding. The only reason for a VC company to fund a company is to be selling later at a win.

Other shareholders might be motivated to keep part of your company because they like what you are doing. A VC company will get rid of you when you are best. And getting a bulk purchase from a cash giant like Microsoft beats having to sell piecemeal.

Jollygreengiant (profile) says:

Little pig, little pig.

Microsoft may have changed, but they’re still there to make money, and screw over Linux. They keep on trying on a new sheepskin coat every few months, but deep down there’s still a big, bad, capitalist wolf after Linux’s FUD and guts. How much do you think MS would care if there was a ‘mysterious’ intermittant ‘problem’ with a lot of open-source repos that caused a lot of issues for the Linux devs?

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

From the standpoint of the Physics Community...

… the stance is very simple, do not use Corporate/Vendor owned operations. Since the debacle of Oracle buying Sun, thus Java, there has been zero trust in the Science Communities on announcements like this. Then again, not exactly seeing a rush to organize a viable ‘non-profit’/not for profit organization that will invest the cash to provide storage, operating system, and programming language for the ‘benefit of mankind’ either.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Then again, not exactly seeing a rush to organize

Just because Open Source outfits like the Free Software Foundation, the Linux Foundation, The Document Foundation, the Blender Foundation, the Jupyter project and the rest of them are not valued at multiple billions of dollars (and don’t bleed billions in VC money) doesn’t mean they’re not benefitting humanity. I would say their legacy is more likely to last long after Microsoft is nothing more than a name in the history books.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am not convinced Microsoft understands what “consent” means for their products.

Given their rollout of Windows 10 (Press X to accept the Terms and Conditions!) and their continued hostility to privacy and user control (mandatory telemetry and repeatedly undoing pro-privacy user-configured settings), I am not convinced in the long-term health of the open source community with Microsoft’s stewardship of a piece of critical infrastructure.

The moment Microsoft sees that leaving Github developers alone is not the most profitable way forward, I have every reason to believe they’ll abandon any pretense of friendliness to open source and work to undermine the ecosystem.

There is a management culture problem with Microsoft that Satya Nadella has scarcely begun to address.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The moment Microsoft sees that leaving Github developers alone is not the most profitable way forward,

Well Gitlab has just gone through an explosive growth phase, and seems to have realized that they have the opportunity to replace GitHub. Also Sourceforge is still there, and has a chance to recover from their mess up from several years ago.

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