Microsoft woos child programmers with ‘fun’ language

MS has set up a website for hobbyist and student programmers

Microsoft is hoping to lure hobbyist programmers and young children to the Windows platform through a website and forthcoming version of Visual Studio which aims to make Windows development easy and fun, the company says.

On a website called Coding4Fun, Microsoft is inviting third parties to submit content that will encourage developers who code for a hobby to build new applications using the .Net framework and Windows, says Daniel Fernandez, a senior product manager in Microsoft’s developer division.

One project highlighted on the site is a new development language designed to replace BASIC as the language in which young children begin programming in schools. Kid’s Programming Language (KPL) aims to “make it fun for kids learning to code,” according to the Coding4Fun website. KPL was developed by Jon Schwartz of software development company Morrison Schwartz East and is available as a free download.

Morrison Schwartz is currently working on a series of video games inspired by classic arcade games built using KPL. The games will be released on Microsoft’s Coding4Fun site in a few months.

Microsoft sees KPL as an easy way to introduce kids to programming, as well as an easy transition to Visual Studio Express, because many features in KPL’s development environment are similar to those in Microsoft’s tools suite, Fernandez says.

Microsoft has always been aggressive in its tactics to court young people, particularly students, to program on Windows, says Rick Ross, the founder of the JavaLobby, a news and development forum for Java programmers. For example, the company gives US university students a complimentary subscription on the Microsoft Developer Network site so they can download the company’s software for free, he says.

“Microsoft has been tremendously successful in penetrating academia with this program,” Ross says. “It gives [students] a knowledge of and tendency to use Microsoft programs when they leave school.”

However, in the past several years the trend has been that Java is replacing C++ as the first programming language students learn in school because it is extremely easy to teach, he says. This may explain why Microsoft is promoting efforts that would lure programmers to its software platform before they enter a formal computer science program.

The Coding4 Fun site went live at the same time the first beta of Visual Studio Express Edition, a lightweight, user-friendly version of Microsoft’s .Net development toolset, was released in March, Fernandez says.

The scaled-down version of Visual Studio is expected to be released to manufacturing in November when Microsoft formally launches all new versions of Visual Studio 2005.

Fernandez says Microsoft started out as a company that allowed programming hobbyists to build applications easily on Windows but that audience has become under-served as Microsoft focused heavily on its enterprise software business in recent years.

Earlier this year Fernandez and another Microsoft engineer “decided to rejuvenate the hobbyist market” with the Coding4Fun Web site. The site is in line with Microsoft’s enterprise strategy as well because not only is the developer hobbyist community a subset of professional developers but, in addition, “you never know what the next killer app will be,” he says.

“There are very large audiences of people building these applications,” Fernandez says. “If we can make their lives easier, that’s a win for us.”

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