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REDMOND, Wash.—Microsoft has launched a new Web site aimed at helping novices learn to write applications and build their own Web sites.

Capping its thrust to tap the nascent market for tools for beginners, Microsoft launched its new Beginner Developer Learning Center on March 1.

Dan Fernandez, Microsoft’s lead product manager for Visual Studio Express, Microsoft’s low-end tool set for students and hobbyist developers, said there is a “huge number of people out there doing all sorts of things” with the low-end tools, but that number only scratches the surface of how many people would likely benefit from a tool for absolute beginners based on work they do or interest in building simple applications.

Indeed, Fernandez said Microsoft has seen 10 million downloads of its Visual Studio Express tools since their release. Yet, “we see people doing nonprofessional development as a market of over 100 million people,” Fernandez said.

In October, Fernandez told eWEEK that Microsoft was working on a Web site aimed strictly at beginners and was hoping to deliver it by the end of 2006. Now the Microsoft Non-Professional Tools Team has delivered on that promise.

“One of the key things people were asking for was beginner-level content,” Fernandez said. “They wanted it to be understandable by an eighth grader.”

Moreover, the new Microsoft offering “is about lowering the barrier to entry … for people who didn’t spend four years getting a computer science degree,” Fernandez said.

The new site targets “absolute beginners,” but it doesn’t “dumb down” the content, “it simplifies it,” he said. “We start by assuming you have no programming experience.”

And because people tend to learn in different ways, we are “learning-type-agnostic,” Fernandez said, noting that the site offers videos and other types of educational material.

The site offers instruction on both Web and Windows development and it features tiered content. Tier 1 is the starting point where newcomers are introduced to the basic concepts of programming. Tier 2 assumes the subject understands the foundations of .Net development, and by the end of this level they should be able to build a basic, working application. Tier 3 takes the budding developer into the concepts of data access and debugging.

Meanwhile, the Beginner Developer Learning Center also features a series of content aimed at youngsters with its Kid’s Corner. The Kid’s Corner features things like “VB for Very Bright Kids” and “C# for Sharp Kids.” The site also features Code Rules, a fun, virtual road trip to learning how to program using Visual Basic; CurliQue Studios, where kids learn the basics of Web Development with Microsoft ASP.Net as part of a Web design team for a rock band; and Microsoft DigiGirlz Tech Camp content aimed at helping high-school-age girls learn Web site design.

“We’ve had huge success with Express and we want to build on that,” Fernandez said. “We expect people will go through and create a first Web site.”

Click here to read more about Microsoft’s Expression suite of design tools.

What’s more is that all the source code for the applications is available as well for free, “so people can take it and modify it,” Fernandez said.

Meanwhile, though Microsoft is offering the service for free, the company’s efforts are not altogether altruistic. Indeed some of the novice developers are bound to later become customers for Microsoft’s higher-end developers’ tools and certainly they will become more likely to focus on the Windows platform, but mostly they will be able to create software and possibly parlay that into careers in technology.

For instance, new developers who learn from the new site could then go to Microsoft’s Coding4Fun site to gain more experience and apply their knowledge to building things they care about like content for the Xbox 360, and from there, they could pick up Microsoft’s Express and later even use Microsoft’s professional Visual Studio tools.

“No one else is thinking holistically,” Fernandez said. Microsoft has a new version of Windows that provides foundational support for an effort like the new site, and it has a site aimed at absolute beginners and tools that take new developers from beginner level through to professional.

Whether or not they become Microsoft developer customers or possibly wind up working for Microsoft is not the issue, Fernandez said.

“For the software industry to survive, somebody needs to do something to get more people in the pipeline,” Fernandez said. “No matter what, we’re going to need more people in the pipeline. There are a number of jobs that won’t require a four-year degree in computer science” but that do require a certain level of competence and skill in programming, he said.

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