Thursday, 23 October 2014

Thoughts on the demise of CodePlex and Mercurial

I've been an enthusiastic user of CodePlex ever since it first launched in 2006. 14 of my open source projects are hosted there, including my "main" contribution to .NET open source, NAudio, and my most downloaded project of all time, Skype Voice Changer.

CodePlex was for me a huge improvement over SourceForge, where I had initially attempted to host NAudio in back 2003, but never actually succeeded in figuring out how to use CVS on Windows. Thanks to the TFS to SVN bridge, CodePlex source control was easy to work with using TortoiseSVN, and offered discussion forums, bug tracking, release hosting, and even ClickOnce hosting, which I make use of for a number of projects.

I was particularly excited in 2010 when CodePlex started to support Mercurial for source control. I was just awakening to the amazing power and flexibility of DVCS, and I quickly settled on Mercurial as my preferred option to Git - it just seemed to play a lot better with Windows, have a simpler command line syntax, and wasn't blocked by my work firewall. So I made the switch to Mercurial for NAudio in 2011.

Git vs Mercurial

It became obvious soon after making my decision that Git was definitely winning the popularity contest in the DVCS space. Behind the sometimes arcane command line syntax, there was an incredibly powerful feature-set there, and slowly but surely thanks to tools like SourceTree and GitHub for Windows, the developer experience on Windows improved and overtook Mercurial.

A case in point would be Microsoft’s decision to support Git natively in Visual Studio. Thanks to the built-in integration, it is trivially easy to enable Git source control for every project you create. For a long time I hoped that Mercurial support would follow, especially since Microsoft had appeared to back it in the past through CodePlex, but they made it clear that Mercurial support was never coming.

Likewise with Windows Azure, when Microsoft added the ability to deploy using DVCS, it was Git that was supported, and Mercurial users were left out in the cold again. I believe that has actually now been rectified, but for me at least, the damage had been done. I’ve used Git for almost all my new projects for over a year now, and I only really use Mercurial now for my legacy projects. It’s obvious that if I want to integrate with the latest tooling, I need to be using Git, not Mercurial.

GitHub vs CodePlex

Although CodePlex added Mercurial hosting back in 2010, it was obvious that they were rapidly losing users to GitHub, and in 2012, they finally added Git support. In theory this should have revived CodePlex as the premier hosting site for .NET open source, but it became apparent that they were falling behind in other areas too. GitHub’s forking and pull request system is very slick, and GitHub pages is a much nicer option than the rather clunky wiki system that CodePlex uses for documentation.

For a while it looked like CodePlex was fighting back, with regular updates of new features, but the CodePlex blog has had no news to announce for over a year now, and perhaps more of an indictment, GitHub has become the hosting provider of choice for the new and exciting open source projects coming out of Microsoft, such as the new ASP.NET vNext project. There are some notable exceptions such as Roslyn (which is considering a move to GitHub) and Visual F# tools (which has a top-voted feature request to move to GitHub).

Does CodePlex offer any benefits over GitHub? Well there are a few. I like having a separate Discussion forum to my Issues list. The ClickOnce hosting is useful for several of my projects. And I can’t complain about the modest income stream that their DeveloperMedia ad integration allows you to tap into if you have a popular project you’d like to generate some income for. But GitHub is a clear winner in most other respects.

Standardisation vs Competition

Now it could be considered a good thing that Git has won the DVCS war and GitHub has won the open source hosting war. It allows us all to embrace them and standardise on one way of working, saving time learning multiple tools and workflows. But there is a part of me that feels reluctant to walk away from Mercurial and CodePlex, as a lack of competition in these spaces will ultimately leave us poorer. If there is no viable competition, what will drive Git and GitHub to keep innovating, and meeting the needs of all their users?

For example, GitHub at one point unexpectedly decided to ditch their uploads feature. This immediately made it unsuitable for hosting lots of the sorts of projects that I work on, which are released as a set of binaries. It looks like they have remedied the situation now with a releases feature, but for me that did highlight a danger that they were already in such a position of strength they could afford to make a decision that would be hugely unpopular with many of their users.

I’m also uneasy about the way that GitHub has become established in the minds of many developers as the only place that counts when evaluating someone’s contribution to open source. My CoderWall page simply ignores all my CodePlex work and focuses entirely on a few peripheral projects I have hosted on GitHub and BitBucket. My OpenHub (formerly Ohloh) page does at least attempt to track my CodePlex work but somehow only picks up a very limited subset of my actual commit history (apparently I did almost nothing in the last two years). I’d rather they didn’t show anything about my commit history than a misrepresentation. I’ve also read numerous blogs proclaiming that you should only hire a developer after checking their GitHub contributions. So it is concerning that the all the work I have done on CodePlex counts for nothing in the minds of some simply because I did it on the wrong hosting site with the wrong DVCS tool. Hopefully the new Microsoft MVP criteria won’t take the same blinkered approach.

Time to Transition?

So I find myself at the end of 2014 wondering whether the time has come to migrate NAudio to GitHub. I was initially against the idea, but it would certainly make it easier to accept contributions (very few people are willing to learn Mercurial), and GitHub pages would be a great platform to build improved documentation on. And all of a sudden these tools that attempt to “rank” you as a contributor to open source would finally recognize me as having done something!

But part of me wishes that the likes of CodePlex and Mercurial would have a renaissance, as well as new DVCS (Veracity?) and alternative open source hosting sites like the excellent BitBucket will continue to grow and flourish and provide real competition to Git and GitHub, spurring them on to more innovation.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this in the comments. Have you transitioned your open source development to Git and GitHub, and why / why not?

TLDR: Git is awesome and GitHub is awesome but the software development community is poorer for there being no viable competition.

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