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Microsoft targets amateur programmers

Perks for hobbyists will include lightweight development tools and a free version of SQL Server.

Microsoft is reaching out to nonprofessional programmers with a revamped line of developer tools, including a free version of its forthcoming SQL Server database.

As expected, the company launched the new Express line of developer tools at its TechEd Europe conference in Amsterdam on Tuesday. The lightweight editions of the tools and database are meant to expand Microsoft's presence among students and hobbyists.

Microsoft said it will release the Express line, which will include stripped-down versions of its Visual Basic, Visual C#, Visual C++ and Visual J++ products, in the first half of next year. At the same time, the company plans to launch a free version of its database software, called SQL Server Express Edition, along with a new product, Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition, for building Web sites and Web services.

The tools will be priced in the "tens of dollars," said John Montgomery, director of marketing for Microsoft's developer division. The full versions of Microsoft's tools targeted at professionals can cost nearly $2,000.

Montgomery said Microsoft is targeting a large population of people--the company estimates that there are 18 million nonprofessional programmers, compared with 6 million professionals--who want cheap or free products appropriate for building business applications. Often, nonprofessionals use Web-oriented tools, such as FrontPage or Macromedia Flash, which are suitable for front-end design but not database-driven business applications, he said.

The move to offer low-cost tools is also intended to blunt the growing popularity of open-source alternatives to Windows, such as Linux. For years, Microsoft has relied on, and catered to, its huge base of Windows programmers. Applications that those programmers have created over the last two decades have in turn driven the popularity of Windows itself.

Windows, and Microsoft's underlying .Net development model, have actually gained in popularity among professional programmers in large companies within the past year, according to a recent survey conducted by Evans Data. But some developers have argued that open source and Linux are capturing more attention among new developers and students, due to lower cost and easier availability to tools.

As Linux gains in popularity as a server operating system, developers will more likely target their applications to it. Linux-based servers are expected to account for 29 percent of server unit shipments and about $9.7 billion in revenue this year, according to market researcher IDC.

Likewise, open-source database alternatives, such as MySQL, are increasingly being used by Web developers for prototyping and application deployment. Microsoft expects the Express version of SQL Server to compete with MySQL, said Tom Rizzo, director of product management in the SQL Server unit. The database will be limited to running on a single server processor, with 1GB of memory and 4GB of storage.

"It is really for a data-driven application where you just want a place to put your data in and maybe have it interoperate with (higher-end versions of) SQL Server through replication," Rizzo said.

The Express edition allows developers to use Visual Studio to write "stored procedures," or pre-written database queries, with different programming languages and store XML as a data type. However, it does not have reporting capabilities or the same management tools as the full-scale editions of SQL Server, he said.

Separately, Microsoft executives also confirmed that beta versions of two major new products, SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005, are "imminent." The company delayed delivery of both products earlier this year. Completed products are expected in the first half of next year.

Microsoft also plans to announce an agreement with and eBay to make software development kits for Amazon, eBay and PayPal Web services available to Microsoft developers via download.

CNET's Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.