Did you know you can get free Microsoft (News - Alert) software if you're a student, a startup software company, or a Web developer? Yep, the folks in Redmond have different Web sites all under the name Spark that offer free applications and other benefits for qualifying users.
Microsoft DreamSpark for Students
If you're a registered student you can download a host of Microsoft database and development tools for free from the DreamSpark Web site. You'll find Windows Server 2003 and 2008, SQL Server 2008, and Visual Studio 2005, 2008, and the newly-released 2010, along with other interesting apps. The home page displays a list of all available software. You download each program as an IMG or ISO file, which you can burn directly onto a CD or DVD.
How do you qualify for the software? You must be a registered student attending a college and have a school email address with your college or university. To apply, sign into the DreamSpark site with a Windows Live ID. Select your country (and your state and city if you're in the U.S.) to see a list of schools specific to your location. If your school appears on the list, you fill out a form with your name, date of birth, and college email address. If all checks out, you'll receive an access code by email that you enter to verify your status. If your school isn't on the list, the site provides a support email address that you can contact to confirm your status and receive the code.
I first used DreamSpark a few years ago when I was taking Web design and development courses at a local college. My school was on the list, so the process went smoothly. My wife is currently taking classes with an online college that was not on the list. But she was able to email the DreamSpark support address and receive her access code.
In addition to the free software, the DreamSpark site also provides links to online tutorials where you can bone up on your Visual Studio and SQL Server skills.
Microsoft BizSpark for Startups
If you're running a startup software business you can also grab some free apps and other benefits courtesy of Microsoft BizSpark. To join BizSpark, you must have a Website for your business and provide Microsoft with details about your company to prove it's a legitimate startup. Your business must be involved in some type of software development, privately-held, operating for less than three years, and bring in less than $1 million in sales per year.
But you can also qualify if you're a partner or developer for a startup software company. Once you pass the litmus test you can download a range of Microsoft business apps, including Windows Server, SQL Server, Office SharePoint Portal Server, and BizTalk Server.
Beyond the software, membership in BizSpark provides you with support and advice from other members and network partners, two free tech support incidents from Microsoft, and access to Microsoft's MSDN site. You'll enjoy email support, online training, and invitations to local events for startup software companies. And you can even add your business to the site's startup list so potential colleagues and customers can learn more about you.
Microsoft WebsiteSpark for Web Developers
Finally, if you're a Web designer or developer Microsoft WebsiteSpark will provide you with free software, support, and other benefits. As with BizSpark, you have to provide some details about yourself or your company, including your Website, your location, and a description of your business. And you must be a Web developer or designer with no more than 10 employees.
If you're approved you can download such software titles as Microsoft Expression Web, Visual Studio Professional, Windows Web Server 2008, and SQL Server 2008 Web Edition. But as with BizSpark, you also get a host of other benefits, including the ability to promote your business and network with colleagues and potential customers, two free support incidents with Microsoft, and free online training.
Your membership lasts for three years at which time the program ends, though there are some workarounds for remaining active, which are detailed in the site's lengthy FAQ. There's no cost to join WebsiteSpark. But there's a backend catch. Microsoft will charge you $100 when you exit the program, either on your own or when your three years are up. Still, if you use the site wisely, the overall benefits are potentially worth considerably more than $100.