GitHub's Copilot
Image: GitHub

GitHub thinks AI should help write code. Now comes the hard part.

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This Thursday: GitHub thinks developers should let AI code from time to time, private equity companies love enterprise software in 2021, and IBM's email servers appear to have started the holiday weekend a little early.

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The Big Story

Cleared for takeoff?

Pretty much the entire arc of modern tech history — both good and bad — can be viewed as a never-ending quest to automate the tasks that software developers are tired of doing.

That's the spirit behind Microsoft-owned GitHub's new Copilot service, announced this week as part of a private beta for developers using Microsoft's open-source Visual Studio Code developer environment. GitHub described Copilot as "your AI pair programmer," a reference to the common practice of developers working in tandem. (This excellent New Yorker piece on Google's Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat is a great intro to the concept.)

Copilot is based on technology developed by OpenAI and is trained on "billions of lines" of publicly available code. Given a few cues from a developer, it can generate code that can potentially be used in their application. The idea is to help experienced developers save time finding boilerplate code for simple tasks, and to help inexperienced developers learn new programming languages and development concepts.

  • One open secret within software development circles is the frequency with which even very experienced programmers search Google or Stack Overflow to find basic code for their apps.
  • Copilot uses a new technology called Codex, which is a derivative of Open AI's GPT-3 language-prediction model, to replace that copy-paste operation with synthesized code right within Visual Studio Code, the most popular development environment.
  • Developer experience is one of the most competitive aspects across enterprise tech at the moment, and assuming it works at scale — which is far from given at this point — Copilot could be a tipping point for how software developers use AI to improve their productivity.
  • It's also the culmination of some shrewd investments by Microsoft over the past several years, including the $7.5 billion acquisition of GitHub, the release of the open-source version of its stalwart Visual Studio development tool and a $1 billion investment in OpenAI last year.

But Copilot also raises lots of questions about software copyright, licensing and the efficacy of training an AI model on code sets that are unquestionably buggy.

  • Researchers generally consider public data sets to be fair game when it comes to training AI models, but it gets a little thornier when public data sets are used to generate commercial products.
  • While permissive open-source licenses like Apache 2.0 generally allow anyone to do whatever they want with that code, others require some disclosure of modifications and a new crop of licenses put limits on how third parties can use publicly available code to build cloud services.
  • In a set of FAQs about responsible AI, GitHub was upfront about Copliot's ability to generate working code at this early stage: "There's a lot of public code in the world with insecure coding patterns, bugs, or references to outdated APIs or idioms. When GitHub Copilot synthesizes code suggestions based on this data, it can also synthesize code that contains these undesirable patterns."
  • And on Hacker News, GitHub CEO Nat Friedman acknowledged that Copilot is going to be controversial in some quarters: "We expect that IP and AI will be an interesting policy discussion around the world in the coming years, and we're eager to participate!"

And its success or failure is hard to predict right now. With the possible exception of 5G, it's hard to find a technology in recent years that has been hyped as much as artificial intelligence. The autonomous cars we were promised by 2021 are clearly not here, companies are struggling to figure out how to implement AI in their tech strategies and AI-powered facial recognition technologies are getting a lot of pushback as regular people start to understand their capabilities.

  • Yet software developers are the right audience for AI tools; they grasp the power of automation and generally understand its benefits and limitations.
  • Still, there's something a little eerie about turning over computing-programming tasks to computers.
  • At its best, Copilot is "suggested replies" for code. Auto-generated words and phrases in emails and texts are commonplace across mobile devices and office productivity software, and most of us use them when they're sensible and ignore them when they're not.
  • At its worst, it's the software-development version of Microsoft's extremely flawed Tay chatbot experiment, learning all the wrong lessons from decades of the slapdash and insecure code that powers far too much of our critical technology infrastructure.

Done correctly, Copilot could be a breakthrough low-code tool, an area that has seen an incredible amount of interest over the past few years. GitHub did not provide a timeline for the release of a commercial version, but if Microsoft can find a way to generate revenue from GitHub, its low-code Power Platform and Visual Studio Code after spending billions piecing together the puzzle, it's going to happen.

— Tom Krazit


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This Week On Protocol

PE M&A: So far throughout 2021, private equity companies have already invested more money in enterprise SaaS companies than during all of 2020, according to a new report from Protocol's Joe Williams. And in a bit of a departure from their cost-cutting tactics of the past, private-equity investors are making these deals with revenue growth in mind.

Work better, you: The post-pandemic period might generate some of the most fascinating shifts in workplace trends since everyone started working on mobile devices a decade ago. That's just one reason why we just launched our newest section, Protocol | Workplace, and as part of that launch Protocol's David Pierce sat down with Salesforce's Patrick Stokes to talk about the changing nature of workplace tools, both in and out of the office.

Five Questions For...

Erin Reilly, Chief Social Impact Officer, Twilio

What was your first tech job?

Sr. Manager of Yahoo for Good. One of my first projects was to integrate "How to Help" links into Yahoo News articles on disasters so people could donate or volunteer. I was so amazed that something I did touched millions of people within the first few months of working there. It was my first experience using technology to scale impact, and I got the bug.

If Protocol gave you $1 billion to start a new enterprise tech company from scratch today, what would you do?

Launch a company that provides access to financial capital to women entrepreneurs in developing countries by using the data in their mobile transactions to create nontraditional credit scores. I want more women to be financially empowered, which then lifts up entire communities.

What's your favorite pastime that doesn't involve a screen?

Backpacking in the wilderness. I have taken my 7-year-old daughter since she was 4, and will take my son now that he's 3. No distractions, sweat, dirt and wind in the trees.

How can enterprise tech improve its current status around diversity, equity and inclusion?

We need to move past the idea that representation metrics are the end-all be-all for diversity, equity and inclusion. The more powerful indicators look at the full experience of employees — hiring, retention, career progression, pay equity. And beyond the company's walls, we also need to play a role in ending systemic racism in society; for instance, supporting voting rights, so our legislation truly represents the full diversity of views.

What will be the greatest challenge for enterprise tech over the coming decade?

Applying enterprise technology across the public and private sector to solve some of the biggest social and environmental challenges facing the world right now. One area we've seen progress here is with tech companies partnering with non-governmental organizations and governments to get the world vaccinated. Initiatives like COVAX, the largest global initiative working to vaccinate lower income countries against COVID-19, are a great example of organizations coming together to increase equitable distribution of the vaccine.

Around the Enterprise

  • There were no changes in the cloud infrastructure market pecking order during 2020, according to Gartner, although AWS market share continued to slowly decline as Microsoft, Alibaba and Google grew at a faster pace during the year.
  • Intel was forced to delay the launchof its next-generation Sapphire Rapids server chips in the first quarter of 2022 due to the need for "additional validation time." So much for it getting its data-center strategy back on track earlier this year.
  • Adam Selipsky formally takes over for AWS CEO Andy Jassy next week, and he made his first public appearance since his return to AWS at Mobile World Congress this week. Predictably, he didn't say anything provocative.
  • AWS has considered partnering with Slack and Dropbox on an enterprise software bundle that could be pitched as an alternative to Microsoft Office, according to Business Insider.
  • New charges were filed against that former AWS employee who hacked into Capital One's AWS account to steal personal information, after prosecutors learned that several other unidentified companies were breached.
  • The newest version of the Top500 supercomputer list came outthis week, and the number of Chinese supercomputers dropped from 212 machines on the last list to 186.
  • Apple moved a lot more data into Google Cloud's storage services this year, according to the Information, and it's now the second-largest customer for Google behind ByteDance.
  • Slack wants to duplicate in-office conversations with the launch of Huddles, a running audio-call feature that will let you gossip about "The Bachelorette" instead of working, without having to type.
  • Business Insider has a nice profile of Linus Torvalds, the loved and feared creator of Linux who is trying to be a little more considerate these days.
  • The only thing worse than a massive reply-all catastrophe at a huge corporation like IBM? A prolonged outage, and according to The Register an email migration project at Big Blue — one that was 18 months in the planning — has lost the plot.


Company culture has changed overnight. With a mass shift to home offices, many businesses are asking: What does our future look like when people can work from anywhere? In this first-ever roundtable with Trello's leadership team, learn how Trello has scaled a successful hybrid work model over the past decade.

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Thanks for reading — Protocol is taking the day off on Monday, but Protocol | Enterprise will return next Thursday!

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