What Will GitHub Be in 5 years?

ben profile image Ben Halpern May 09, 2016

GitHub has had a profound effect on software, and therefore the world. Everyone knows the company that has raised a lot of money with the impetus to grow. This fact deserves more attention than it gets. As a critical piece of open source software as it exists today, there is grey area in GitHub’s current role and uncertainty in its future role.

This unicorn software company has a $2 Billion dollar valuation. Its investors, big names like Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital, recently gave them $350 million with the idea that that $2 billion dollar valuation was just the tip of the iceberg. GitHub needs to get real big and deliver an outsized return to its investors.

Continuing to provide a free platform for building open source software and a cheap platform for individuals and startups to host their code repositories is not the obvious future for GitHub. It may be the right choice, but that is far from a foregone conclusion. There are many decisions and scenarios that could play out in interesting ways for GitHub, and they should all be of interest to programmers who use the service. While there are already various alternatives and competing companies, GitHub is the whale in the industry and as its features evolve, vendor lock-in issues could become even more pronounced. Therefore, focusing on it individually makes sense, but many of the same principles apply to any current or future competitors operating with the same typical business structure. I want to present a few non-mutually-exclusive ideas about what the future could hold for the code-repo giant.

GitHub is acquired by Facebook or Google

Facebook and Google have each had their own issues trying to develop the sort of services that GitHub is now owning. Facebook has tried several times to branch into the "social" business world without much success, while Google has failed in more direct competition with GitHub as well as failures across the board in social. These companies are big enough that a GitHub acquisition would be a totally reasonable expenditure.

GitHub would be a worthwhile acquisition for each company for various reasons. Open source has become a significant component of each business and the synergy™ here would be nice for either company. Neither Facebook nor google has been shy about making acquisitions that piss a lot of people off or shutting down loved projects and platforms.

GitHub goes head to head against Dropbox and Google Drive

GitHub has been expanding its browser features, including direct file upload features that I believe could put it head to head with Dropbox. GitHub has a lot going for it as a central piece in an expanding set of workflows and integrating Dropbox-esque features could be very appealing for the company. The market for file sharing is large (and in charge?). If GitHub expands successfully in this direction, it would be a major departure from the developer-only focus of the present offering.

Steve Jobs famously derided Dropbox as a “Feature, not a product”. He was heckled about this as Dropbox grew to be a multi-billion dollar company while Apple’s cloud competitor floundered, but Dropbox is not out of the woods yet. There will consistently be threats to the the company from other firms to integrate its best features rather than offering them as a standalone product. The feature vs product argument at play here is a contentious one and I could see it playing out with GitHub being in the middle of it all.

GitHub goes full enterprise

It is not uncommon for companies to get 80/20 returns when dealing with a few larger enterprises beats having millions little guys. I suspect that an outsized amount of GitHub’s revenue is generated this way. What if it becomes unprofitable to even bother with the free and cheap tiers? GitHub is a for profit business, and even if they remain unbeaten and popular in the open source community, this does not mean maintaining that service is in their best interest.

Somebody else comes along and totally crushes GitHub

It could happen. Businesses fail all the time, big or small, and GitHub has a huge amount of inertia locked up in their current model, and there will always be room for innovation. There have absolutely been complaints over GitHub’s seeming complacency in its feature set and a visionary competitor could totally come and take them down.

A one size fits all approach fails in favor of a more designer approach and the industry fractures

GitHub really does do it all for everyone right now, which may not necessarily be ideal. While this unified convention helps, different projects may have different needs, and GitHub’s core abstraction may fall down over time. It may be the case that different types of projects, languages, frameworks, build tools, containers, etc., become better served by code hosting platforms with specialized features. If the industry fractures, it would be nice if it could be unified by some shared conventions, and that may happen, but as we have seen with messaging, data feeds, etc., this seems like wishful thinking.

Conclusion

The company’s internal needs and the market’s external forces mean that the future of GitHub is far from certain. The company surely has a private vision they have discussed with shareholders, a vision that gets them from $2 billion to $100 billion and beyond. As programmers balance the need for continuity with a desire for innovation, we should be aware of the interests at play and it is not so clear that GitHub’s interests fully align with the interests of programmers who use it. Open source’s viability is not a long-term certainty and its ties to a single venture-backed business is a tenuous one.

Cover photo credit: Forbes
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