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Microsoft Gives Students a Break With Free Software

What do the founders of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Dell, Apple, and dozens of other successful technology companies have in common? They were all students or not long removed from school when they started their companies.

Now, Microsoft aims to help seed the technologists and entrepreneurs of the future by giving away versions of its commercial development and design software for free to college and high school students worldwide.

Company chairman Bill Gates planned to announce a new program dubbed DreamSpark Tuesday afternoon during a speech to students at Stanford University. Under the program, Microsoft will give free software to all students in tech-related fields on a global basis.

"I've always believed in getting developers [started] at as early an age as possible," Gates said in a short video discussing the program online. "[DreamSpark] is software that students can build a career around," he added.

That's not to say that Microsoft will give away software to every college and high school student on the planet. However, the company will do that for students in five key fields: science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and design – referred to in the academic world as STEMD.

Microsoft guesses that some 30 percent of the world's 130 million higher-education students – by UNESCO's count – are studying one of those fields, Joe Wilson, senior director of academic initiatives at Microsoft,

For those students, the company plans to make a raft of its high-end software available at no cost in order to help educate students needed to fill the anticipated demand for developers, scientists, designers and mathematicians of the future.

"Making sure there is a strong pipeline of technically skilled students is key to the future of the global economy," Wilson said in a statement. "The ability to create new software and services will be an essential part of the skill set of the next generation of workers."

Included on the list of free software are Visual Studio 2005 and 2008 Professional Editions, XNA Game Studio 2.0 developers kit replete with a 12-month academic membership to the XNA Creators Club, and the entire family of Expression Studio design tools. Also free are Microsoft's server platforms, SQL Server 2005 and 2008 Developer Editions, and Windows Server 2003 and 2008 Standard Editions.

The first countries to participate in the program – available for download as of Tuesday – are Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, the company said in a statement.

Over the next six months, Microsoft plans to extend the program to college students in Australia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Japan, Lithuania, Latvia, and Slovakia. Other nations in the Americas, Asia and Europe, as well as high school students worldwide will be able to join the program by the third quarter of 2008.

Reaching a billion students?

Initially, DreamSpark will be available to around 35 million students, but when it has been extended to the whole globe and includes both college and high school students, it has the potential to reach as many as a billion students, according to Microsoft.

Of course, the DreamSpark program is not completely altruistic. It also gives Microsoft the ability to get in the door with students who the software giant hopes will eventually use its products to build their own projects after they leave school.

"If that's an ancillary benefit, we'll take it," Wilson

There is, however, the issue of software piracy. Microsoft says it has made alliances with universities and student organizations worldwide that will verify that a student qualifies for the program. Those organizations include International Student Identity Card (ISIC) Association, the company's statements said.

In fact, by giving the software away for free, and educating students on the value of protecting intellectual property, Microsoft might actually help alleviate piracy to some extent, according to one analyst.

"By giving the products away and building relationships with students, Microsoft could undercut the cost of pirated products," Charles King, president of research firm Pund-IT,

"This is one of those classic examples where I think the company aims to do well by doing good," King added.

Students in the countries participating in the DreamSpark program as of Tuesday, can get signed up and get the downloads here.

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