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Microsoft gears up for fifth Imagine Cup

First-round winners in competition, nicknamed the student software-development Olympics, will face off in Seoul.

Microsoft's competition to find the best student software designers around the world is now open, with $170,000 in prize money up for grabs.

The call has gone out for any student programmers who think they have a shot at winning one of a number of prizes in the fifth annual Imagine Cup, which has a fund of $170,000. But be warned: your only chance of stepping off with a top prize is through cooperation and teamwork, as the Imagine Cup is strictly for team players.

A Microsoft competition, the Imagine Cup is sponsored in the United Kingdom by Capgemini, BT and Hewlett-Packard. It is an international student competition for, in Microsoft's words, "young technologists around the globe to explore their creativity by using technology to solve real-world problems."

Last year, more than 65,000 students from 100 countries participated, leading the competition to be dubbed the "software development Olympics."

The most high-profile challenge of the Imagine Cup is the Software Design Invitational. Other contests test students' abilities in embedded and Web development, programming, IT administration and problem solving, as well as in digital arts such as short films, digital photography and interface design.

This year's theme for the Software Design Invitational is "imagine a world where technology enables a better education for all." The judges will be looking for software developers to use their imagination, and Microsoft's tools and technology, to create usable and innovative software applications based on this theme.

Teams must contain between two and four students, and will compete with the support of an academic mentor to create their solution. Entrants have just a few months to get their work together; the deadline for first-round submissions is February 28. Contestants must submit sample code from the application they develop, along with a document explaining their idea.

Those who make it to the second stage will have to submit a graphical representation of their solution. Each short-listed team will be given two opportunities to deliver a detailed presentation to a panel of judges, with the top three teams then selected to present to the panel and a guest audience.

Each winning team will go on to represent its country on the international stage in the global final as part of an all-expenses-paid trip to Seoul, South Korea.

Prizes for winners of the Software Design Invitational will be a Microsoft Zune for third place, an Xbox 360 and Microsoft suite of games for second place. The first-place prize: a project development package, an HP Compaq nc2400 business laptop and the trip to the worldwide finals in Korea. Once in Korea, teams will compete for $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000, respectively, for the top three places.

"The Imagine Cup has been running for five years now, and for software developers, it's a competition of Olympic proportions," said Andrew Sithers, an academic development evangelist at Microsoft UK.

"This year's theme is one that the students can relate to better than anyone," Sithers said. "These are the people who have daily experience of our education system. This insight is invaluable and I'm sure will produce some incredibly creative approaches to the problem."

Colin Barker of ZDNet UK reported from London.