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Memo to Microsoft: Free (as in beer) isn't enough

Students want to work on projects that they consider interesting, relevant, and--yes--cool. And that has very little to do with Microsoft making products available under an academic license.

Writing in Computerworld, Eric Lai notes that:

Despite the popularity of .Net within companies and other employers, Microsoft has seen its standing among students continue to be eroded by a combination of open-source programming tools and Adobe Systems Inc.'s Web design software. Now, after years of using half-measures to try to beat those technologies on college campuses, Microsoft is taking a bolder step by making four pillars of the .Net platform available free of charge to tens of millions of students in the U.S., Canada, China and eight European countries.

A few observations here.

If you're a follower of Sun and Solaris as I have been for many years, there's a familiar thread here. A major cause of Sun's financial problems--which the company is still working to put behind it--was that it lost a goodly chunk of the core developer constituency that gave it market relevance. And, in CEO Jonathan Schwartz' words: "To establish a high-integrity relationship with a broad and participative community is really the principal objective of bringing Solaris into the open-source world." Yes, there are still many developers for Windows and other Microsoft software platforms, but it often seems a dutiful and passionless crowd.

The analogy between Microsoft/Windows and Sun/Solaris is not a perfect one. Perhaps the most notable distinction is that Microsoft has a broad presence in both consumer and SMB markets that Sun did not (and does not). The inertia this provides insulates Microsoft to at least some degree from the shifting breezes of developer fashion. Nonetheless, when you add in that Microsoft also has to contend with the shift of computing into the network cloud (and the corresponding diminution of Microsoft's incumbent advantages that implies), a weakening connection to developers can't be viewed as anything but bad.

Finally, while giving away software may well be a reasonable step for Microsoft to take, it's hardly a sufficient strategy to counter the rise in Open Source (and programming to application programming interfaces in a Web 2.0 or Software as a Service context). Yes, students like free. Who doesn't? But they also want to work on projects that they consider interesting, relevant, and--yes--cool. And that has very little to do with Microsoft making products available under an academic license.