Analysis: Popularity of open-source, Adobe tools on campus prods Microsoft's giveaway to students

Software vendor sanguine about potential for misuse of .Net tools via DreamSpark program

For Jake Basile, a computer science major at the University of Akron in Ohio, being an outspoken fan of Microsoft Corp.'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 said, 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 Inc.'s NetBeans open-source software and a free programming tool called jGRASP, Basile said.

Despite the popularity of .Net within companies and other employers, Microsoft has seen its standing among students continue to be eroded by a combination of open-source programming tools and Adobe Systems Inc.'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 U.S., Canada, China and eight European countries.

The software vendor announced the software giveaway program, called DreamSpark, at the stroke of midnight Eastern time today. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was scheduled discuss the program during a speech at Stanford University this morning, kicking off a planned tour of colleges in the U.S. and Canada.

Via a new DreamSpark Web site, 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.

Microsoft also is offering its XNA Game Studio 2.0 software through the DreamSpark program. In addition, it will soon make available the 2008 upgrades to Windows Server and SQL Server. "As soon as you can get them on MSDN, you'll be able to get them here," said Joe Wilson, Microsoft's senior director of academic initiatives for developer and platform evangelism.

Wilson added that more countries and more students — including high schoolers — will become eligible to participate in the program over the next year. That will swell the total number of students who can take part to about 1 billion, he said.

"This is a very good move on Microsoft's part," said John Andrews, CEO of Evans Data Corp., 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 program, 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 said the new program is "not too late" to save the day for Microsoft. But, he added, 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 The NPD Group Inc. Making Expression Studio freely available to students is "the fastest way Microsoft could jump-start adoption," Swenson said.

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 said. "And at the end of the day, how much money was Microsoft really getting from students?"

Basile agreed with the latter assertion, saying that most of his classmates simply pirate Microsoft's products or use the free open-source alternatives. "For a college student, it could literally be the choice between paying $50 for Visual Studio or eating that week," he said.

Making any software free and easily attainable for students, especially those in poorer nations, could help Microsoft cut the demand for "bogus bootleg copies," said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Inc.

But couldn't DreamSpark itself make piracy easier, if people who aren't students manage to download the software being made available through the program? Microsoft doesn't think so. Wilson said that to try to limit downloads to legitimate students, the software vendor is requiring participants in the U.S. to either log into their college's network or to the Web site of JourneyEd, an online reseller of software for academic uses. JourneyEd, which is formally known as Journey Education Marketing Inc., maintains a database of students from 80% of U.S. colleges and universities, according to Wilson.

He added that the process should be simpler in Europe, where even more comprehensive student databases have been developed. Meanwhile, according to a check by Computerworld, Chinese students can gain immediate access to the DreamSpark download site if they have accounts with the CERNET multi-university network or the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Otherwise, they can apply for an International Student Identity Card.

To continue getting updates and patches, students will need to verify their identity with Microsoft annually, Wilson said.

The company will grant the software to students for educational uses only, meaning that they technically won't be able to use the free tools to develop commercial products or write code on a software-for-hire basis. Nor will they be able, under the letter of the law, to pass the software on to friends and family members who are doing such things.

But Microsoft has no plans to enforce those terms, Wilson said. And the software vendor is fine with that. "You can never have a perfect system," he said. "There are too many smart, creative people out there. But the risk of the wrong person getting the free software is outweighed by the likelihood that the right people will get it."

Microsoft has no plans to offer Windows Vista or Office free of charge to students, Wilson said. But it may eventually expand the DreamSpark program to include other technologies, such as its Robotics Studio tool kit for developing robotic applications or its OneNote note-taking software.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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