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Microsoft is embracing the free tools concept as a way to drive uptake of its software, announcing an entry-level edition of Visual Studio that will be available permanently at no cost.

Visual Studio 2005 Express, which targets so-called hobbyists, is to join Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 Express database by being made available for free. When it launched Visual Studio 2005 last November, Microsoft originally intended the suite's Express edition to be free for just 12 months.

Microsoft is making the change to tap a growing market of hobbyist Windows and web developers. The worldwide population of non-professional developers is estimated to number some 18m individuals, compared to 14m professional programmers.

Clearly, Microsoft hopes developers using its low-end product will graduate into the full edition of the suite for private or professional engagements. Once that happens, Microsoft can then start charging them thousands of dollars for both the software and membership of the company's premier developer network, Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN).

Additionally, Microsoft will hope to drive further adoption of its operating systems and applications, as hobbyists who build applications will require an underlying software platform to serve as the runtime environment.

Microsoft said Wednesday that the combination of Visual Studio Express along with the SQL Server Express database would "meet the needs of a wide range of software enthusiasts, including beginning Windows developers, hobbyist web developers, amateur games developers and even hardware developers".

Visual Studio Express consists of Visual Web Developer Express, Visual Basic Express, Visual C# Express, Visual C++ Express and Visual J# Express. ®

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