Microsoft aims to win student developers' hearts with free dev tools

Microsoft is trying a new tactic to get more college and high-school students interested in developing for the Windows platform: It's going to give them the development tools for free. Microsoft's move is as defensive -- if not more so -- than it is generous, however.

Microsoft is trying a new tactic to get more students interested in developing for the Windows platform: It's going to give them the development tools for free.

During a talk entitled "On Software, Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Giving Back" at Stanford University on February 19, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is set to unveil the Microsoft "DreamSpark" program. Via this program, Microsoft will make Visual Studio Professional Edition (both the 2005 and 2008 variants); Expression Studio, its family of design tools; SQL Server 2005 Developer Edition; and Windows Server, Standard Edition, among other tools, available to college students -- and eventually high-school students, as well -- for free.

According to Microsoft, 35 million college students in Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. qualify for the program immediatly. Microsoft will extend it to high school students throughout the coming year. Company officials said the program potentially could reach up to 1 billion students worldwide.

(In case you were wondering how Microsoft will make sure only students will get access to the free tools, Microsoft plans to verify individuals' student status by using "various reputable student databases to confirm student identities," a Microsoft spokeswoman said. Students will choose the identity provider that maintains the database (i.e. their school, organization, or other academic-based group) that will confirm their student status, she explained.)

All this sounds impressive and quite generous, on Microsoft's part. However, the reality is that many university students already have access to Microsoft's tools for free via their unversities. And Java and open-source development tools like PHP already have a strong following among students -- making Microsoft's new program look more like a defensive move than an entirely philanthropic one.

Microsoft's new tool give-away is "a positive development but not completely unprecedented," said Charles King Principal Analyst, with Pund-IT, Inc., based in Hayward, Calif. "Other vendors provide colleges/universities a variety of free or subsidized support programs, but what's interesting with Microsoft's effort is that they're putting the tools directly in students' hands."

While "Microsoft already makes (free) 'Express' versions of Visual Studio available for casual users, making the Professional editions available will give more advanced students the opportunity to explore these tools further, and better prepare them for careers as developers because they will have had access to the same tools that today's companies are using," said Mark Frydenberg, Senior Lecturer and Software Specialist in the Computer Information Systems Department at Bentley College.

Microsoft has a number of student outreach programs. But it has no choice but to do more to get the next generation of tech users and developers on its side. Macs already are the dominant computing platform at many a college these days. Microsoft needs new ways to ensure that Windows, Visual Studio and SQL Server aren't relegated to little more than the history books....