Microsoft Corp. is giving students free access to its most sophisticated tools for writing software and making media-rich web sites, a move that intensifies its competition with Adobe Systems Inc. and could challenge the popularity of open-source software.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker said it would allow students to download Visual Studio Professional Edition, a software development environment; Expression Studio, which includes graphic design, web site, and hybrid web-desktop programming tools; and XNA Game Studio 2.0, a video game development program.

The company also will give away SQL Server 2005 Developer Edition and Windows Server Standard Edition.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said the company’s past efforts to arrange educational discounts for these programs limited the number of students who ultimately could use them. DreamSpark, as Microsoft is calling the free software offering, opens up access to many more students, he said.

It’s also good for Microsoft’s business, Gates added.

“We give up some revenue, but we gain the fact that we’ll get the feedback of these students, get more courses to incorporate our tools into their programs, and get more startups where kids are familiar with Visual Studio, Expression Studio, and SQL Server,” Gates said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

The program—which Microsoft says will put its software and web-development tools in the hands of 1 billion students worldwide—gives momentum to an attack Microsoft launched on Adobe Systems last year with the release of Expression Studio and Silverlight, its answer to Adobe’s market-leading Photoshop and Illustrator design programs and Flash, the technology behind much of the video and animation on web pages.

“It’s a brilliant strategic move on the part of Microsoft,” said Chris Swenson, a software industry analyst with NPD Group. “This is one of the core audiences you have to hit if you really want to make a difference in the rich internet application market going forward.”

Handing out free copies of Expression Studio to students today increases the chance that the next big Web 2.0 craze will be designed with Microsoft’s tools and accessed using the Silverlight plug-in, rather than with open-source and Adobe technology.

DreamSpark also could win a generation of programmers away from open-source software, which companies from small startups to Google Inc. use as an affordable, flexible alternative to software from the likes of Microsoft and database maker Oracle Corp.

Gates said students will want to try Microsoft’s tools, because they’re more powerful than the open-source combination of Linux-based operating systems, the Apache web server, the MySQL database, and the PHP scripting language used to make complex web sites.

But Gates said giving away Microsoft software isn’t intended to turn students against open-source software entirely. Instead, he hopes it’ll just add one more tool to their belt.

Giving away Visual Studio, meanwhile, will help ensure a steady stream of new desktop and desktop-web hybrid applications that Microsoft hopes will keep consumers hooked on Windows PCs, even as more programs migrate to the web.

Beginning now, the programs are available free of charge to more than 35 million college students in the United States, Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

DreamSpark will open to high school students around the world starting in the fall and to college students in other countries in the next year, Microsoft said.

Microsoft said it is working with individual schools, governments, and student organizations in each country on systems that confirm whether students are currently enrolled in educational institutions.

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