Having started a developer revolution over the past decade, Docker soared to unicorn status and seemed poised to become one of the next big names in cloud computing. So it came as a shock when the company announced last fall that it was splitting up its business and rebooting its strategic focus.

In recent months, Docker executives have been detailing this reinvention through a series of announcements. On Thursday, they will deliver that turnaround message to their largest audience yet via the virtual DockerCon developer event that has attracted 60,000 registrations.

Docker’s business now focuses on helping developers accelerate their work by speeding up the creation of applications from the initial coding phase to the moment they’re deployed to the cloud. The annual conference provides an opportunity for Docker to build momentum around this new model as it seeks to prove it can generate the kind of revenue that will revive its fortunes.

“Before the November news about the company, it was still a developer company,” said Justin Graham, Docker’s vice president of products. “I think what we’re now seeing is that with the hyper focus of Docker on developers and development teams, even in just the six months since then, there’s deepening excitement around what we’re doing.”

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San Francisco-based Docker will also be getting a boost via announcements from partners such as Microsoft. Today, the two shared an extension of their partnership to simplify the steps needed to launch applications onto Microsoft’s cloud platform Azure.

As application development moves from the desktop to the cloud, developers often have to duplicate various steps. This can be complex and cumbersome, but Docker and Microsoft hope integrating their development tools will help streamline the process. This follows Docker’s announcement last month of a partnership with container security company Snyk to scan images for vulnerabilities as they move through the development cycle.

Docker’s main products now are Docker Desktop, its development application, and Docker Hub, a shared container resource repository. The company sells access to these tools through a range of subscription plans. The idea going forward is to make both indispensable to developers by continually adding new features or offering the ease of access to third-party tools via partnerships.

“Docker is going to be building what’s necessary but not building what’s unnecessary,” Graham said. “If there [are] great solutions that already exist, we’re going to partner with those companies in order to provide the developer the best of breed.”

Docker CEO Scott Johnson began laying out the details of this approach in March.

“At Docker, we view our mission as helping developers bring their ideas to life by conquering the complexities of application development,” he wrote in a blog post. “In conquering these complexities, we believe that developers shouldn’t have to trade off freedom of choice for simplicity, agility, or portability.”

Containers and microservices

Docker was once considered one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups. In 2010, a French developer named Solomon Hykes created an open source project called dotCloud, which grew into a concept that helped dramatically simplify the creation of containers and microservices for developing web-based applications.

By enabling applications that run in a self-contained environment, containers promised to make development faster, more secure, and more stable. Docker is widely credited with playing a key role in accelerating the adoption of containers.

As a result, the company found itself at the center of a revolution, and it seemed to be thriving as it raised $40 million in venture capital in 2014, $95 million in 2015, and $92 million in 2017. Eventually, its venture capital total topped $270 million, pushing its valuation past $1 billion and into unicorn territory.

But as often happens in Silicon Valley, pioneering technology, especially if the foundation is open source, is no guarantee of financial success. To make money, Docker created tools to help enterprises manage their container deployments, most notably its orchestration platform Docker Swarm.

Unfortunately for Docker, Google created a competitor called Kubernetes. Google donated Kubernetes to the Linux Foundation, which turned it into a free, open source project under the guidance of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. Kubernetes has become its own phenomenon and in doing so has undercut Docker’s enterprise business.

There were other signs of trouble. The company cycled through CEOs, with Ben Golub replaced in 2017 by Steve Singh, who was replaced in May 2019 by Rob Bearden, who would only last six months. In March 2018, founder Hykes also announced he was leaving the company.

Docker decided to take a radical step and announced in November 2019 that it had sold its enterprise business, the largest chunk of its revenues, to Mirantis. Docker raised another $35 million in venture capital to restructure its business and named Johnson as CEO.

Johnson described the sale and the decision to focus on developers as a return to the company’s roots. “That we have the opportunity to write this next chapter is thanks to you, our community, for without you we wouldn’t be here,” he wrote in a blog post. “And while our focus on developers builds on recent history, it’s a focus also grounded in Docker’s beginning.”

Docker and developers

Looking ahead, Docker still has tremendous name recognition, along with last year’s funding to power its reboot. As companies shift their operations from legacy infrastructure to microservices and containers, a rapidly growing market continues to generate new problems to solve.

Graham and other Docker executives clearly see this dynamic as an opportunity. They are focused on companies that are trying to help their developers be more productive while making it easier to retrain others to work in a microservices environment. Docker now refers to this space as the “code to cloud middle.”

“There are a number of things that need to get stitched together in that middle for a development team to be really efficient,” Graham said. “That includes a well-constructed pipeline from source control to running the application.”

Docker is trying to build confidence among developers by embracing transparency and publishing details of its own product roadmap on GitHub. The goal is to encourage its developer community to suggest features or services for Docker to create.

“It’s the first time Docker has done anything along these lines,” Graham said. “We’re inviting the community and developers to tell us what they think is important and what they want to see us build and ship to help them.”

In a world that tends to generate complexity as it chases speed, Docker may have a chance to position itself as a critical ally for anyone building web-based applications. Docker may not fulfill the impossible hype it faced a few years ago, but mounting a successful second act would certainly defy the odds most startups face when they stumble.