Microsoft is giving its core developer tools away for free to university and higher-education students in the UK, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, China, Canada and the US.
In a speech to be delivered later today at Stanford University, chairman Bill Gates will give details on the DreamSpark programme's free downloads, which include full professional versions of Visual Studio 2008, the Expression Studio design tools, XNA Game Studio 2.0 for developing Xbox 360 software, SQL Server Developer Edition and Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition.
"The Microsoft Developer Network Academic Alliance has set up over 600 licensed labs with free software in computing-specific faculties around the UK over the last five years. DreamSpark will now extend this and make our tools available to students of any academic subject, from history to music to ancient languages," said Dr Andrew Sithers, academic manager at Microsoft.
"Our scaled-down Express versions are still available free of charge to hobbyists and students, and I hope these may still serve as a valuable entry point for those interested in getting their hands on a more powerful set of products through DreamSpark," added Sithers.
Microsoft said it recognises that a new set of training and reference materials will be needed for the younger breed of newcomers to software development. There is currently a "gulf" between the ease of downloading the products and students actually being able to use them properly, the company claimed. To address this need, the company is planning to develop a new set of tuition materials as soon as possible.
To bring the DreamSpark programme online in the UK, Microsoft is working with service providers, academic institutions, the government and student associations, such as the UK Access Management Federation for Education and Research and not-for-profit IT services group Eduserv, to ensure the necessary student identity-verification technology infrastructure exists. Microsoft says that the programme will be expanded as fast as this community-based effort with government and organisations can be connected.
According to a Microsoft-commissioned IDC study of the economic impact of IT across 82 countries, technological innovation is a "critical economic growth engine" and is predicted to generate 7.1 million jobs worldwide over the next four years.
"The UK's productivity and future competitiveness depend on making the most of technology. Microsoft is an active supporter of e-skills UK's campaign to make the UK world-class in technology skills and helping the workforce of the future to develop valuable IT skills," said Karen Price, chief executive of e-skills UK.
During 2008, Microsoft intends to extend the DreamSpark programme to school-level students in Australia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Japan, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia and elsewhere.