Microsoft Goes After the Youth Vote

Beginning Developer Learning Center is Microsoft's latest attempt at winning over young coders.

Looking to attract novice developers, Microsoft has rolled out an online curriculum of free Visual Studio Express tutorials that begin at square one and work step-by-step through basic .NET development.

The company characterizes its new Beginning Developer Learning Center as a straightforward service to hobbyist developers, but some observers see the move as Redmond's latest stab at winning over youthful coders to its platform before they have a chance to fall in with the rebellious open source crowd.

Long-Term Gamble
"Microsoft is making this real concerted effort at kids, young kids," says Thomas Murphy, who covers development tools and platforms in research firm Gartner Inc.'s Redmond office. "This is a long-term gamble and a bet that they can win those guys over and get them in Microsoft's camp. It's like, 'Marry them young and train them right.'"

Dan Fernandez"The feedback we got was, 'This is still too hard,' or, 'I'm lost,' or my favorite, 'Your help is written for professionals by professionals. It needs to be reviewed by eighth graders.'"
-- Dan Fernandez, Lead Product Manager for Non-Professional Tools, Microsoft

Microsoft's new learning center logged roughly 250,000 hits in the first two days after the March 1 launch, and the company's free, reduced-functionality Visual Studio Express tool has been downloaded more than 10 million times since late 2005, says Dan Fernandez, lead product manager for non-professional tools at Microsoft.

Fernandez says the learning center was inspired by frustrated Express users begging for simpler tutorials that didn't assume any prior development knowledge.

"The feedback we got was, 'This is still too hard,' or, 'I'm lost,' or my favorite, 'Your help is written for professionals by professionals. It needs to be reviewed by eighth graders,'" Fernandez recalls.

While he acknowledges that most learning center and Express users won't ever develop anything more complicated than a personal Web site, Fernandez says it makes good business sense to hold the hands of hobbyists who might go pro one day and be in a position to build upon Microsoft's platform.

Gartner's Murphy isn't convinced legions of bright American teens will log off MySpace or put down their Xbox 360 controller long enough to take a whack at programming -- no matter what free goodies Microsoft throws at them.

"It's in the developing countries, where Microsoft may not be dominant, that the talent is coming from. Match that with open source and there's a tremendous threat to Microsoft," Murphy says. "Yeah, this may be of interest for maybe an American kid sitting in a private school, but what's really the reach beyond that?"

Robert Cutler, who teaches computer science at The Harker School in San Jose, Calif., says his high school programming students do have a tendency to cling to the languages and tools they used first. Java and .NET have managed to win over a few, while others arrive in his classes already staunch open source devotees.

Cutler sees no harm in allowing students to stick to their comfort zones as they learn universal computer science concepts.

"They may be using .NET in high school and Java in college or vice versa. That's fine," he says. "If they're strong in concepts, they can move between them later and just learn the syntax of the new language."

The Microsoft learning center's lessons advance through a sequence, which is divided into three overall tiers. Those who already know the basics can skip straight to the second tier for more advanced .NET tutorials, video clips and code samples.

Tools for the Masses
Looking back at Visual Studio 2003, Microsoft's Fernandez says, "It was all about enterprise development and Web services. We kind of forgot our roots. Microsoft is a company about going after the little guy. So we said, 'We need a great tool for the non-professional developer.'"

Microsoft first launched Express editions of Visual Studio and SQL Server a year and a half ago. Microsoft has since added free, scaled-down Express versions of Visual Web Developer, Visual Basic, Visual C#, Visual C++ and Visual J#.

Murphy says he'll be watching with interest to see if the Express functionality level quietly creeps up in coming years as Redmond scrambles to hook wannabe developers amid increasing competition from the Eclipse framework and hot languages such as Python and Ruby.

For now, Microsoft isn't worried about Express cannibalizing Visual Studio sales on the low end of the market, Fernandez says.

"I think there's always going to be some bleed-over, but once professional developers get into Express, they start to say, 'How do we have source controls for multiple users?' It's a lot like not having reverse in a car. You're fine until you need it," he says.

In Silicon Valley, computer science teacher Cutler says he doesn't much care whose framework generates the biggest buzz among aspiring programmers. He just hopes come-ons like free tools and extensive tutorials will help reverse flat or falling college enrollments at computer science departments across the country.
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