Microsoft woos hobbyist, child programmers

Microsoft Corp. is hoping to lure hobbyist programmers and young children to the Windows operating system through a Web site and forthcoming version of Visual Studio aimed at making Windows development easy and fun, a company spokesman said Thursday.

On a Web site 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, said 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 Web site. KPL was developed by Jon Schwartz at Chapel Hill, N.C.-based software development company Morrison Schwartz Inc., and is available as a free download.

Morrison Schwartz is 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 children 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 said.

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

"Microsoft has been tremendously successful in penetrating academia with this program," Ross said. "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's extremely easy to teach, he said. 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 Coding4Fun 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 tool set, was released in March, Fernandez said. The scaled-down version of Visual Studio is expected to be released to manufacturing Nov. 7 when Microsoft formally launches all new versions of Visual Studio 2005.

Fernandez said that Microsoft started out as a company that allowed programming hobbyists to build applications easily on Windows, but that audience has become underserved as Microsoft focused so 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 also "you never know what the next killer app will be," he said.

"There are very large audiences of people building these applications," Fernandez said. "If we can make their lives easier, that's a win for us."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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