Microsoft is programming the programmers

Chris Williamson, president and founder of DreamQuest, a smallish gaming company, tells me that he is getting pushed by new hires to use Microsoft's C# and the .Net Framework.

"It's a smart strategy. When they come into a company like ours," one that can't pay the big salaries, "we listen to them," Williamson explains. "We want them to be excited."

The smart strategy Williamson refers to is not DreamQuest's but Microsoft's. It revolves around intense marketing efforts at the college level to get computer science and engineering students excited about Microsoft's programming and design products. The company holds student contests with cash prizes and Xbox giveaways to the best program written in C# for the .Net platform.

The Redmond giant also supplies educational material to professors and even donates millions of dollars to universities to build computer science buildings and departments.

"Sun does similar stuff but not near to the level that Microsoft does," Williamson notes. "They give away everything."

Hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue could be at stake but not from selling Visual Studio.Net development tools.

Here's what it's really all about.

Randy Potter, who is on the MIS advisory board at Texas Tech University as well as being the chief Microsoft architect at Cap Gemini, says there really isn't a big difference between, say, C# and Java. Syntactically, they are similar, and if you know one, you can easily learn the other.

But the more interesting consequences come from using the .Net class libraries. It may be easy to leave C# language, but it is harder to leave the .Net Framework that the class libraries are tied to. "If I am tied into the .Net Framework, I am tied into how Windows work," Potter says.

We also know Microsoft wants the world to use .Net. The card Microsoft hasn't shown yet is: What will it do about developers using .Net in non-Windows environments such as Linux or Unix?

A company called Ximian Inc., bought by Novell Inc., is the canary in the mine shaft as far as that goes. Ximian's Mono Project is going to consist of: an open source version of CLR (Common Language Run time), a run-time version of .Net; a C# compiler; and class libraries for Linux. Will Microsoft charge a license fee for use of .Net technology on other platforms? Miguel de Icaza, Ximian co-founder, told me that .Net is a great development platform for Linux. Imagine all of those future programmers building applications on .Net and Microsoft getting a fee for every non-Windows enterprise application.

Everyone I spoke with says that there isn't much to worry about because college kids are smart enough to understand what's going on and independent enough to keep their options open, such as using open source and J2EE.

"The nice thing that happens in academia is, students are usually anti-Big Brother," Potter believes. "In academia, (influence by corporations) doesn't reach a critically alarming peak."

Oh, really? Tell that to the sports, entertainment, tobacco, and high-tech industries.

Potter offers this antidote. IT should forget about hiring grads who are proficient in any one language or platform and instead look for "problem solvers."

My advice: Hire English majors. They are true independent thinkers.

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Ephraim Schwartz

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