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IBM tries to hook computer science students

IBM hopes to get college kids to experiment with something new--non-Microsoft development software.

IBM will supply universities with free software and deeply discounted hardware, hoping to lure students away from Microsoft's popular Windows-based development software.

Announced Tuesday, the IBM Academic Initiative is designed to create computer science curricula around IBM-backed technologies, notably the Java programming language and open-source software such as Linux. IBM is heavily invested in industry standards like Java and Web services, which form the basis of many of its products. It also sells servers with Linux, the open-source server operating system that has stemmed the growth of Microsoft's Windows.

"This is a response to schools asking for an alternative to Microsoft," Buell Duncan, General Manager of IBM Developer Relations, told CNET "(The initiative) is about (promoting) open standards--Linux, Java--and the IBM stack of products that support those standards."

In a statement, IBM said funds earmarked for the university outreach program will be made available to institutions that "support open standards and seek to use open-source and IBM technologies for teaching purposes."

The company will be giving away its software, such as its WebSphere Java server software and its DB2 database, and offer hardware at a "deep discount," according to Duncan. Between 300 and 400 people will be dedicated to the university programs, and Duncan expects that hundreds more IBM employees will volunteer to work with universities on developing curricula over the next few years.

In the past, IBM has funded research programs and had relationships with universities for recruitment, but it has never worked directly with universities on developing computer science curricula.

Boosting the number of programmers versed in Java and the Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) server software is a hedge against the ready availability on college campuses of Microsoft's development tools, such as Visual Studio, and the .Net programming model.

Microsoft actively courts the academic community by making its development tools easily accessible to students and by forging ties between its research organization and university faculty. Next year, the company expects to offer a line of very inexpensive development "Express" tools, priced under $100, in part to broaden its reach to students.

As part of the IBM Academic Initiative, IBM said it will tighten its ties with Northface University, a school based in South Jordan, Utah, that specializes in programming training. The university has partnerships with IBM, Microsoft and Unisys.

Scott McKinley, CEO and chairman of Northface, said the global supply of adequately trained programmers is not keeping up with demand, despite the elimination of thousands of tech jobs, following the deflation of the Internet bubble.

He said enrollment is down about 30 percent in the wake of the dot-com meltdown and that a majority of businesses find that newly minted computer science graduates are not well-prepared. Traditional computer science programs are too theoretical, McKinley said.

"Companies need to solve business problems, and students need to know how to collaborate and communicate. Traditional schools are not focusing on those skills," he said.

IBM announced the academic outreach program in Grapevine, Texas, at a customer conference for its Rational development tools division.