For Jake Basile, a computer science major at the University of Akron in Ohio, being an outspoken fan of Microsoft's .Net programming tools sometimes feels as lonely as being a young Republican — which he also is.
"I'm not a member of the campus ACM group because everyone there uses entirely open-source stuff, which I think is way too close-minded," Basile says, referring to the Association for Computing Machinery.
This semester, the sophomore has only one .Net class that involves the use of Microsoft's Visual Studio development tools. The rest are being taught in Java using Sun Microsystems' NetBeans software and a free open-source programming tool called jGRASP, Basile says.
Despite the popularity of .Net within companies and other employers, Microsoft has seen its standing among students continue to be eroded by a one-two combination of open-source programming tools and Adobe System's web design software.
Now, after years of using half-measures to try to beat those technologies on college campuses, Microsoft is taking a bolder step by making four pillars of the .Net platform available free of charge to tens of millions of students in the US, Canada, China and eight European countries. It is expected to arrive in New Zealand later this year.
Via a new DreamSpark website, students will be able to download the Professional editions of Visual Studio 2008 and its Visual Studio 2005 predecessor, as well as Windows Server 2003, SQL Server 2005 and Expression Studio, a web design suite that competes with tools from Adobe Systems.
Microsoft also is offering its XNA Game Studio 2.0 software through the DreamSpark programme, and the soon-to-be-released 2008 upgrades to Windows Server and SQL Server will be made available as well. "As soon as you can get them on MSDN, you'll be able to get them here," says Joe Wilson, Microsoft's senior director of academic initiatives for developer and platform evangelism.
Wilson adds that more countries and more students — including high schoolers — will become eligible to participate in the programme over the next year. That will swell the total number of students who can take part to about 1 billion, he says.
"This is a very good move on Microsoft's part," says John Andrews, CEO of Evans Data, a market research firm that focuses on software development. "Student developers are a huge market that Microsoft must address to counter the open-source movement."
Andrews noted that Sun and IBM are the most prominent promoters of open-source technologies as alternatives to Microsoft's offerings. For instance, Visual Studio's primary open-source rivals include Sun's NetBeans and the IBM-supported Eclipse framework, both of which are available free of charge. Similarly, Windows Server is battling against Linux, which is heavily backed by IBM, while SQL Server has to contend with the open-source MySQL database, which Sun is in the process of acquiring under a deal announced last month.
Over the past few years, Microsoft has responded to the open-source challenge by offering Express editions of Visual Studio and SQL Server that students, hobbyists and other developers can use for free. Those products supplemented the academic discounts that Microsoft offers. And at schools that have signed subscription licensing deals under Microsoft's Campus Agreement programme, students can install any of the covered software on their PCs.
But piecemeal tactics such as those haven't provided the unambiguous statement of intent that the DreamSpark announcement does.
Andrews says the new programme is "not too late" to save the day for Microsoft. But, he adds, DreamSpark "needs to be a priority if Microsoft wants to get its fair share" of future programmers.
In addition to the incursions that Microsoft faces from open-source tools, the company's Expression Studio suite remains a huge underdog to Adobe's trio of Illustrator, Flash and Photoshop among budding graphic and web designers, according to Chris Swenson, a software analyst at NPD Group. Making Expression Studio freely available to students is "the fastest way Microsoft could jumpstart adoption," Swenson says.
The benefits of the DreamSpark program likely will cut both ways, Swenson added. "It looks good for a student to be able to put on his resume that he's using the full version of Visual Studio," he says. "And at the end of the day, how much money was Microsoft really getting from students?"