Just like tobacco companies and automobile makers, Microsoft knows that the best way to make sure that people will keep buying products is to get them into the hands of young people, especially young women.
For Microsoft, that means continuing the practice of offering the Express versions of its Visual Studio and SQL Server tools free to developers.
Microsoft announced this and a series of Visual Studio 2005 Express edition momentum news on April 19.
“Software has the potential to transform everyday lives,” said S. “Soma” Somasegar, corporate vice president of the Developer Division at Microsoft.
By making the Visual Studio 2005 Express editions available free of charge, were putting the power of code into the hands of an exploding community of recreational programmers. This community has asked for it, and we are excited to provide it.”
Matt Trossen, president of Phidgets USA, a producer electronics and components for robotics based in Westchester, Ill., said he sees the Microsoft Visual Studio Express tools as a good way to teach programming to newcomers.
“We are working toward combining the value of Visual Studio Express with Phidgets to build kits, projects, and curriculum for introducing to schools worldwide which are aimed at getting the next generations of programmers even more excited about learning programming,” Trossen said.
“Through the use of Visual Studio Express with Phidgets, schools and teachers are finding a new way to show kids how they can learn to build projects never before possible.
“Initial response from education professionals has been very positive since it allows them to create much more interactive real world type projects that draw the interest of their students in.”
Trossen said the Visual Studio Express technology, which he calls VSE, can help attract more women into programming.
“While I dont have any demographics on the issue, I can tell you that the percentage of girls and women entering the field of programming is certainly growing,” Trossen said.
“At many of the recent conferences we have attended there have been a much larger percentage of women in attendance than one would have expected,” he said.
Tools for Free
The educational and promotional value of offering the Express tools for free has been obvious to Microsoft.
Initially Microsoft said it would offer the Express tools free as a promotion for one year, “but were announcing that Visual Studio Express will now be free forever. One big reason were doing this is adoption has been huge,” said Dan Fernandez, lead product manager for Visual Studio Express.
Fernandez said that since the launch of the Visual Studio and SQL Server Express editions on Nov. 7, 2005, a strong community has built up around the products, and the various editions have been downloaded more than 5 million times.
“In five months weve had 5 million downloads, which is huge for a development tool,” Fernandez said.
Moreover, at the Maker Faire event put on by OReilly Medias Make Magazine, Microsoft will display how a variety of innovative companies are using Visual Studio 2005 Express editions to bring the power of code to the growing community of 18 million recreational and hobbyist developers, Fernandez said. The Maker Faire will be held April 22 and 23 in San Mateo, Calif.
The SQL Server Express and Visual Studio Express editions are targeted at a variety of developers, from beginning Windows developers, hobbyist Web developers, amateur game developers and hardware developers, Fernandez said. All the editions of Visual Studio Express will be offered as free downloads: Visual Web Developer Express, Visual Basic Express, Visual C# Express, Visual C++ Express and Visual J# Express.
Meanwhile, Microsoft also released new learning content on the MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) Coding4Fun Web site, providing tools and resources for the community to get up and running quickly, the company said.
Moreover, companies such as Phidgets USA, Lego Group and eBay and have chosen to support the Visual Studio Express editions.
Working in conjunction with Lego, Microsoft created an application that lets the robotics community use Visual Studio Express to program their Lego Mindstorms robots to do specific commands, such as maneuvering around obstacles, and control them from their computer keyboard or mouse, the company said.
Hardware developers can use Visual Studio Express Editions and the interface kits and other electronic components provided by Phidgets USA to build a wide array of electrical gadgets and robots all controlled with software, the companies said.
“Phidgets bridges the world of hardware tinkering and computer programming by providing components for interacting with electronic devices that developers can control from their desktop,” said Trossen, president of Phidgets USA (soon to be Trossen Robotics), in a statement.
“As a no-cost, easy-to-use offering, the Visual Studio 2005 Express Editions provide an ideal development environment for creating these applications and helping our customers bring their hardware projects to life.”
And eBay also is helping empower its hobbyist and entrepreneur customers by providing a Visual Web Developer Express starter kit that features pre-built functionality and templates to reduce the complexity of building an online presence.
The eBay offering enables developers to build an ASP.Net storefront from what the company calls an eBay Seller Kit, Fernandez said.
Fernandez said there are also APIs available for Skype users to build Visual Studio Express-based applications.
Fernandez said at the upcoming Maker Faire, show attendees can see the types of projects they can build with Visual Studio Express and SQL Server Express, including the .Net Interface for Lego Mindstorms, an application that simulates a “Dance Dance Revolution” arcade game, and another that enables remote home automation such as monitoring a users home temperature using instant message commands.
In addition, the new learning content will be available to help people get started with the tools, including seven new starter kits and downloadable demos on Coding4Fun, Microsoft officials said.
“To give an example; at our last show, Robonexus, one of my favorite students that came by our booth was a young female who had more robotics knowledge than 99 percent of the boys that came by in her age group.”
“She has been independently building robotics projects and immediately took interest in the most advanced projects we had on display, asking questions at a skill level that frankly blew me away for a person of her age. She was around 14 years old and was chatting us up about inverse kinetics, navigation and motion control,” he said.
Moreover, added Trossen, “At our recent shows we have had females both young and mature alike, which showed a strong interest in programming and emerging technologies like the ones we market—from female students, to teachers, to industry professionals.
“Some of the projects that we hear about using Phidgets are from female students or groups of students which include girls. Many of the female teachers we talk with ask us directly how they can use our products to get more girls interested in learning programming. Its clearly a growing initiative in the schools.”
Trossen made a distinction between his company and the Phidgets company. “Phidgets are made by Phidgets Inc. in Canada, and I own Trossen Innovations LLC here in the states. PhidgetsUSA.com is a subsidiary of my company, which is a reseller of the Phidgets products as well as our start up for our robotics initiative. Since Phidgets Inc. themselves focuses mainly on manufacturing and we are in sales and distribution, we end up doing a lot of marketing for the products.”
Jon Schwartz, a former Microsoft program manager, one of the developers of the KPL (Kids Programming Language), and a principal at Morrison-Schwartz in Chapel Hill, N.C., said he views the Microsoft Express editions of Visual Studio as the next step up from KPL.
“Visual Studio Express editions are, of course, the next logical step after KPL,” Schwartz said.
“Express Editions, like KPL, are free to download and use—and they open up a much larger world of .Net development technology than we provide in KPL. KPL itself intends to remain a beginner language focused on games and game development—this is a much narrower focus than the Express editions, much less the broader .Net development community. Since this is the case, we will continue to recommend that KPLers move to .Net when they are ready.”
Schwartz said that among the goals of KPL are to make it easy to get started as a programmer and to make it fun and interesting to get started as a programmer.
The Next Generation
“From the beginning it has been our goal that beginners who use KPL have an easy time moving onto a professional software development environment—and our own IDE [integrated development environment] of choice is Visual Studio.Net. We mention this every time we get a chance to speak or write about KPL—and this was, logically, the issue that led us into contact with the Visual Studio Express team.”
Soren Lund, director of Lego Groups Mindstorms division in Billund, Denmark, said, “Visual Studio Express is targeting next generation of developers—hobbyists, students and kids. The aim is to get this group to learn how to program. It is basically the same thing we are doing with Mindstorms. We just start out with robotics where VS Express starts out with programming. The short version of what Lego and Microsoft is doing together regarding VS Express and Mindstorms is that we provide kids, students and hobbyists with a strong link between the world of robotics and the world of programming.”
In addition, Lund said, “With the LEGO RCX Programmability for .Net application, we believe that we have created a unique opportunity to inspire a new generation of developers to explore that world of programming and the world of robotics.”
Indeed, Lund said Legos FLL (First Lego League) Program features 70,000 children from 25 countries. The FLL features an event where youngsters have two months to build and program a Mindstorms robot and to conduct a research assignment around the theme of the year.
Meanwhile, in November 2005, Microsoft released a kit to help student developers get more adept at using the Visual Studio Express technology. The kit is known as Mint Source.
According to the Microsoft download site, “Mint Source is the unconventional new starter kit for students that enables you to quickly get your hands on the freshest, hottest technology from Microsoft. Think of it as direct line to Microsoft information. Well give you samples of what you can do and the tools to do it.”
Moreover, a document Microsoft provided eWEEK about Mint Source describes it as technology that came out of Microsofts United Kingdom Academia team.
“The UK Academia team is aiming to broadly connect with students to enable students to realize their potential through technology,” the document said.
“Mint Source is a student offering to help them play around with the new Express line of products. The software is a kit that enables them to look at a working app, play with the graphical elements and enter some local competitions—whilst learning at the same time about the framework and how to get coding—it has been written by our student intern who came to MS in the summer with a non-MS development background.”
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