Personal Blog of Shaun Walker


GitHub Killed The Golden Goose

By Shaun Walker on 2/12/2022

As a result of building a superior global platform for developer collaboration, GitHub has killed the proverbial golden goose. It is now in a unique position where it can be a champion for open source sustainability... but the question is whether it's business model is still aligned with its open source heritage.

GitHub Killed The Golden Goose

In order to explain we need to go back in time to the era before GitHub...

Prior to 2009, open source projects had limited options when it came to infrastructure and tooling to support their projects. Certainly there were options available such as SourceForge, however many aspects of open source community management needed to be handled by the project itself. For example, in this era most open source projects had their own community website with a discussion forum which served as the communication hub for the community. Almost all community engagement occurred through the website and as a result the project owner had full control, including the ability to measure and analyze their engagement metrics and leverage the channel for marketing campaigns and revenue generating opportunities.

To provide a concrete example I was the original creator of DotNetNuke, a very popular open source CMS project in the Microsoft ecosystem. In the years between 2003 and 2008 DotNetNuke experienced tremendous adoption and growth, and the dotnetnuke.com website was the epicenter of the community. Advertisers and sponsors were eager to obtain access to this professional, targeted audience. As a result, at its peak the open source project was able to generate $25-30K per month of passive revenue. This revenue was essential in funding the efforts of a full-time team of project maintainers. Passive revenue is the holy grail for maintainers as it allows them to focus on the project without getting distracted or having to compromise its ideals.

GitHub emerged as a global developer collaboration platform in 2009. It capitalized on the demand for the Git distributed source control management system and became a champion for open source. However, it is important to note that although Github's brand is synonymous with open source and that it provides free services to open source projects, it is in fact a Web2 platform - a walled garden where access to content and services is controlled by a single organization. GitHub provides infrastructure and tools and its collaboration platform has become increasingly more comprehensive over time, fulfilling almost every community management requirement today. However, GitHub also has very restrictive policies forbidding maintainers from utilizing its platform for marketing or advertising. And as a result, open source projects no longer have the same ability to generate passive revenue in the ways they were able to in the past.

One thing to keep in mind is that Microsoft owns GitHub. And Microsoft has a depth of experience and tools for managing affiliate advertising programs. Therefore it would not seem to be challenging for GitHub to integrate these tools in a non-invasive manner and allow open source licensed projects to opt-in to a passive revenue stream. The ad revenue could be distributed in an equitable manner based on the actual activity of each project relative to others in the program. GitHub can certainly cover its own costs or even use it as a profit center, as they are entitled to a share of the revenue for providing the infrastructure and service. And the broader ecosystem would benefit from having a targeted channel for creating awareness of their commercial products and services.

The initial reaction by GitHub to this proposal will surely be that "its against our philosophy" and "our users do not want advertising". And this may even be a very valid statement for some of their audience. However, the question is who does GitHub ultimately serve - consumers of open source or maintainers of open source? It would seem that open source projects are GitHub's "products" and without an inventory of products, the consumer demand for its services would most certainly decline over time.

That being said, GitHub has been fairly deliberate in recent years in moving increasingly more into the proprietary development space - providing tools for commercial organizations and enterprises. So the ultimate question is whether it still cares about its open source roots and history... and whether it truly cares about open source sustainability. Only time will tell.

Shaun Walker has 25+ years professional experience in architecting and implementing enterprise software solutions for private and public organizations. Shaun is the original creator of Oqtane and DotNetNuke, web application frameworks which have cultivated the largest and most successful Open Source community projects native to the Microsoft platform. He was one of the original founders of DNN Corp, a commercial software company providing products, services, and technical support for DotNetNuke, which raised 3 rounds of venture capital from top tier Silicon Valley investors. Based on his significant community contributions he has been recognized as a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) as well as an ASPInsider for over 10 consecutive years. He was recognized by Business In Vancouver as a leading entrepreneur in their Forty Under 40 business awards, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Outercurve Foundation, and is currently the Chair of the Project Committee for Microsoft's .NET Foundation. Shaun is currently a Technical Director and Enterprise Guildmaster at Cognizant Softvision.