Microsoft is to give away some of its core software to university and high school students around the world in an effort to win over the next generation of software developers to its technology.
The bid to attract future developers is the latest extension of Microsoft’s long-running battle to keep open-source software at bay, while also fending off advances by companies like IBM and Adobe, both of which have seen some of their technologies make inroads in university computer science departments.
The free software plan is due to be spelled out by Bill Gates, the company’s chairman, in a speech on Tuesday at Stanford University.
As many as 40m students around the world who study maths or science-related subjects will eventually have access to the software, Microsoft executives estimated.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Gates said the aim was to help draw the next generation of developers to Microsoft technology “and to drive up the rate of innovation in software running on PCs and on Windows servers”.
Microsoft is to release its software tools for software development and design free of charge to registered students, starting in the US, China and eight European countries, including the UK.
The offer includes the full professional versions of Visual Studio, which developers use to create programmes that run on Windows, and Expressions, a set of design tools.
Microsoft’s base of independent developers has long been seen as its most important competitive weapon, reinforcing Windows’ position as the dominant desktop computing platform and its expanding use on servers.
However, Mr Gates played down the threat to Microsoft of losing ground if other software development tools make inroads in universities, and he maintained that
Windows had benefited as Unix had diminished in importance in academia.
While Microsoft’s set of tools is more complete than rivals, it faces competition on a number of different fronts from Eclipse, a set of open source development tools supported by IBM, and Flash, the popular software for multimedia web applications created by Adobe.
New lightweight tools designed to make it easier to write applications for the web, such as Ruby on Rails, have also won a following in academia.
Reflecting the importance of this group to the big tech companies, Google has also made a bid for the hearts and minds of university students, although its efforts are focused on giving free access to its online applications rather than the sort of developer tools being offered by Microsoft.