Mad, Beautiful Ideas
Microsoft and Crack-Dealer Economics

Today, Microsoft posted a new interview on Channel 8 with Bill Gates regarding free software for students. Please note that I’ve not capitalized free software in the prior sentence, as Microsoft and Gates’ use of the term is likely to give Richard Stallman and the rest of the Free Software Foundation a collective aneurysm .

The program is called Dreamspark, and through it, Microsoft plans to make available full versions of Visual Studio 2008, Expression Studio, Windows Server 2003 and the XNA Game Studio. All told, software that would cost me as a private consumer thousands of dollars to license. This isn’t completely new. As a student at Montana State University, I had access to Microsoft’s MSDN Academic Alliance, a progam by which students at select universities would be given free licenses to a variety of Microsoft softwares. While mostly targeting Computer Science students, MSDNAA made available consumer operating systems and software like Office. Dreamspark is interesting not because it’s new, but because it’s scope is unprecedented.

Who can get this right now? We are kicking this off in 11 countries/regions, giving DreamSpark to millions of students in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, China, Germany, France, Finland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium. If you are not residing in one of the countries listed keep checking back, we will be adding more countries throughout the year.

A frighteningly large number of students being given expensive software gratis, so that they learn it, and gain familiarity that they’ll carry with them. It’s the ultimate in ‘first-hit-free’ marketing. Give it away when they’re just starting, get them hooked, take them to the cleaners later. Don’t get me wrong, Visual Studio is a fine toolset, but the Pro version retails for almost $800 US, and frankly, I’m not sure it’s worth that much. Particularly when looking at tools like MonoDevelop or SharpDevelop both of which are Free is all senses of the word and are a very powerful, capable IDEs.

Microsoft has been shifting their business plan for the last several years. They’re migrating away from the importance of what most people considered to be their core-business, the Windows Operating System, and focusing more on Developers and Productivity Tools. Their Developer Tools are good, but they only work with Microsoft Systems, including databases, and they’re frighteningly expensive. Microsoft’s integrated Team System, a developers tool chest containing a lot of cool looking tools and integrated source management, costs nearly $10,000 per user. Yes, you can license sub-sets of the tools for individual users in the team, but Microsoft has completely priced themselves out of the medium-team market with this pricing. Not to mention, that you practically have to hire someone to install the system, as our Systems Administrator spent two weeks trying to install the system for evaluation before giving up on it.

Microsoft knows that without Developers for their platforms, they will fail. Platforms work that way. It’s why the classic Mac OS was failing, and why Apple gives away XCode for Mac OS X. It’s why the Free Software community has spent so much time in the last decade developing powerful development tools to ease the process and use of the already powerful tool chains created the decade prior. And it’s why Microsoft offers the Visual Studio Express line.

I understand what Microsoft is doing here. Universities across the globe tend to favor Free Software in their Computer Science programs. It’s cost-effective with no strings attached. It levels the playing field between all the students, without requiring that they all use University computers to do their work. I can think of only one course where we had to use windows for the course-work, and that was simply because we were doing x86 Assembly using MASM. More often than not, it would have been disadvantageous to try to use Windows in my coursework, which may not have been right either. Admittedly, most companies I’ve interviewed with and work with use Microsoft Technologies, so the familiarity will be nice, but ultimately, these are all just tools.

What makes me uncomfortable, was the requirements that Microsoft puts on organizations like my office, in an interesting position of having to release verifications of enrollment, something which federal law and policies govern. Now, Enrollment Confirmations are simple enough, however, the university has never been asked to supply Enrollment confirmations based on Single Sign-On technologies before. Frankly, I’m unsure how it will be received by the administration. We use SSO extensively internally (though many students feel not extensively enough), but to open that system to the outside, even if all that is being sent is “True/False” values.

Gates says in the interview that he’s just hoping to provide students with options, and that’s great. Really, it is. Options are what Free Software is all about. But there is no way in hell Microsoft would be providing these options if they didn’t expect to make it up on the back-end. Most business are already using Visual Studio and the Windows Platform, by ensuring that new students will be familiar, business are more likely to stick with that platform. And business in where Microsoft makes their money. Who cares if they give away a single license to a student? When that student enters the workplace, they’re likely to work for a company that will need to purchase dozens of copies. And all the support software, after all, Microsoft software only runs on other Microsoft software (save a few anomalies, like Office for Mac), and that dozen or so copies of Visual Studio also translate into a dozen or so copies of Desktop Windows, and a Windows Server with dozens of Client-Access Licenses.

By giving away the software, Microsoft is trying to ensure not that this student will continue to buy their software, but that their future employers will. It’s all about vendor lock-in, and tightening their already iron grip on the market. Gates’ comment in the interview that the Microsoft stack was more capable than the LAMP) stack is a potential misnomer, particularly with the excellent ASP.NET support in Mono, and clear FUD. Maybe it’s true, that the value of Free Software is skewed by the fact that it costs very little to have. We’re naturally wary of that which takes little effort to gain, which I hope some people apply to this latest offer. The best laid traps, are the ones that look the least threatening.