The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Significance of A Free Visual Studio

I recently discovered that Microsoft is now providing a free version of its Visual Studio development environment, called Visual Studio Express. In November it will become a $50 product, but considering that the full Visual Studio sells for $1000+, that's still a steal. I'm writing about VS Express because I think it's more than just a company lowering the price of their product, or offering a "light" version of a heavyweight system.

I've used Visual Studio for several years. In college I bought a "student" version of VS (which was effectively the same as the full version, but at a steeply discounted price). Even though I was very much coming from the Linux world at the time, I fell in love with Visual Studio. I generally regard it as one of the best products Microsoft makes -- not that there's much competition for that title. It's a great integrated development environment with some top-notch tools for debugging, GUI building, deployment, and just general code exploration. I've never seen anything from the open-source world that comes matches it, although Eclipse is getting close.

The problem with Visual Studio was that, at the cheaptest, it was $100. For students. For regular people, it was much more expensive. It's a great product -- but not that great. Additionally, it's a product that Microsoft needs people to use. Windows is nothing without good software, and good software is built by good programmers, and good programmers like to code a lot. Pricing a development environment out of the range of most common programmers inhibits the creation of good software. Sure, big software companies will buy all the site licenses they need. But, commercial software doesn't win many peoples' hearts. Some of the most popular software of recent times (Napster, WinAmp, PKZIP, to name a few) was developed initially by "hobbyists", not big corporations.

This situation has always put Windows at a disadvantage --particularly against Linux. Out of the "box", Linux comes with an almost endless supply of development tools. Compilers for almost any language, debuggers, editors, all come standard with Linux. Sure, they may not be quite as good, in my opinion, as what you get with Visual Studio, and they certainly don't work together as well. But, they are free, and they're right in front of you when you install Linux. People will use them. To create innovative software. For Linux. I don't care, but Microsoft surely should. When you install Windows, you get no development tools. There are some free compilers and such available, but they all are pretty bad, compared to either Visual Studio or Linux's tools.

I've always thought this to be an odd situation. Microsoft is almost encouraging people to develop for Linux, or to develop for Windows using tools that aren't made by Microsoft. For most hobbyist programmer, it simply isn't an option to buy a $1000 product, and at the same time it simply isn't an option to not program. Hence, non-Microsoft products will prevail.

It's good Microsoft has made a free/cheap version of Visual Studio. At least, for them it is. It's sort of bad for their competitors. But now the average person can install a high-quality development environment without breaking the bank. And this really does benefit Microsoft in the long term. Sure, they'll make less money per copy of Visual Studio. However, probably more people will use Visual Studio as a result of this, which cements their domination in the market. Also, if people (particularly young students) use Visual Studio at home and learn how to program using it, then that is what they're going to feel most comfortable with if they enter the software industry. This will likely cause more big companies to want to buy high-cost licenses of Visual Studio.

In colleges, there's a definite anti-Microsoft sentiment in computer science departments. Maybe this is partially an effort to fight that. If young people had access to Microsoft tools, they might not view them to be quite as evil.

As disclaimer, I have not used Visual Studio Express yet. I don't know how it compares to the full version of VS I am currently using. I intend to try it out sometime soon, though. At any rate, it's not so much the specifics of VS Express that interest me, but rather the idea of it. Microsoft finally got something right.

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