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When I was in college, which — according to my children — was during the last ice age, there really wasn't anything in the way of free development tools for learning new skills. Basically, all we had was the version of Microsoft BASIC that came along with the computer, which was only slightly better than deer antlers and stones when it came to learning programming skills. Thinking about it now, deer antlers and stones might have been better; at least they didn't have line numbers and GoTo statements.
Today, of course, we live in the twenty-first century, and things have changed drastically. The glaciers have retreated, the mastodons have died off, and Microsoft has something called Visual Studio Express Editions. If you haven't heard of the Visual Studio Express Editions, they are free, lightweight editions of Microsoft's Visual Studio .NET 2005 and SQL Server 2005. The interesting thing is that there are no restrictions as to the commercial use of these products, which might strike some people as stupid on Microsoft's part. I, however, think that it is absolutely brilliant. The reason that I feel this way can be summed up in two different ways — one optimistic and one pessimistic.
For the optimistic reason, a little history lesson is necessary. Way back in the 1970s and 1980s, AT&T owned the UNIX operating system. In a smart marketing move, probably its only one, it offered UNIX for a nominal fee to educational institutions. Needless to say, this created a whole generation of developers who either absolutely loved UNIX, or at least knew UNIX.
Microsoft appears to be doing the same type of thing with its Visual Studio Express Editions, creating a whole generation of developers who either absolutely love .NET, or at least know .NET. The pessimist in me believes that Microsoft is doing this only because it understands that it is hard to compete with free. It's even money that Steve Ballmer has nightmares about Firefox, MySQL, and a whole slew of others.
It doesn't matter which flavor of .NET development interests you, the chances are that there is a Visual Studio Express Edition that will tickle your fancy. Actually, if a language is available in Visual Studio .NET 2005, there's pretty good odds that there is an Express Edition available. Also, since no language exists in a vacuum, there is even an Express Edition of SQL Server 2005 available, as the following list of Visual Studio Express Editions shows:
- Visual Web Developer 2005
- Visual Basic 2005
- Visual C++ 2005
- Visual C# 2005
- Visual J# 2005
- SQL Server 2005
As with anything, there are a couple of gotchas with the Visual Studio Express Editions. The first of these is pretty much a no-brainer: You need a recent version of Windows that can handle Version 2 of the .NET Framework. Another one is that if you want to use Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition, having a version of Windows that can run Internet Information Server 5.0 or higher is a given, as is installing IIS first. However, just because your machine is running Windows XP Home or Windows XP Media Center doesn't mean that you're out in the cold; you can still run the other Express Editions.
Before starting on a download spree, it is a pretty good idea to do a little housekeeping. For example, with Windows XP, Service Pack 2 is a must. Another thing you'll need, if you intend to run SQL Server Management Studio Express, the front-end for SQL Server 2005 Express Edition, is MSXML 6. Finally, all of the Express Editions require the .NET Framework 2.0. Getting all of these out of the way first will eliminate some headaches down the road.
After downloading the files — I picked the ISO versions — installation is simply a matter of picking which Express Edition to install and burning a CD. Another option is to mount the image in a virtual drive like Daemon Tools, as shown in Figure A.
|Mounting an image in Daemon Tools|
Once the image is mounted, the installation proceeds as shown in Figure B and Figure C.
|Installing Visual C# Express Edition|
|Installing Visual C# Express Edition|
After the installation is complete, I'm ready to play, and what is more appropriate than the classic "Hello, World!" application in Figure D. Not only does it show that I didn't mess up, it is the equivalent of christening a ship.
All this and a database too
As intellectually stimulating as "Hello, World!" can be, without some kind of database management console, something is missing. We already installed SQL Server 2005 Express Edition from the ISO. So let's install SQL Server Management Studio Express, because I'm a "wuss" when it comes to working with databases. Unlike Visual C# 2005 Express Edition, SQL Server Management Studio Express is an .exe file instead of an image, so just double-click on it to begin the installation, as shown in Figure E.
|Installing SQL Server Management Studio Express|
Once the installation is complete, all that is left is trying it out, as shown in Figure F.
|Trying out SQL Server Management Studio Express|
The tools available to learn new skills have really changed since I was in college, as have the cost of the tools required to try out new skills. With the Express Editions, Microsoft has, to a degree, insured that its development tools won't be immediately dismissed as being too costly for students, hobbyists, and developers looking to upgrade their skill sets. Yes, things have really changed since I was in college. The development tools for usable languages are free and you can't get a good mastodon sandwich anymore.