10 free Microsoft products for IT and home users

Despite billions in licensing revenue, Microsoft gives many products away for free

Microsoft doesn't earn billions of dollars every month by giving away its software. But even Microsoft is no stranger to offering freebies in a bid to increase customer loyalty.

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There was CEO Steve Ballmer handing out new Windows Phone 7 devices to every developer at the recent Professional Developers Conference at Microsoft headquarters – and all 89,000 Microsoft employees will get their own free Windows phone. (See also Microsoft Windows after 25 years: A visual history

But you don't have to trek all the way to Redmond or work for Microsoft to take advantage of free technologies from one of the world's largest software companies. Let's take a look at some of the free Microsoft products that might appeal to IT pros, business users and consumers alike.

Security Essentials

Microsoft's free anti-malware product for Windows PCs was first released in September 2009, and Microsoft recently altered the licensing agreement to let small businesses run Security Essentials on up to 10 computers. Microsoft also offers EMET (Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit), a free download that can harden legacy applications and generally make it more difficult for attackers to exploit software vulnerabilities.

Network Access Protection

This "free, basic NAC for Windows-only shops" is included with Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008. "Features are relatively primitive," according to Network World tester Joel Snyder, who says "Microsoft NAP will work best in an all-Microsoft operating system environment where all devices are joined to a Windows domain."

Windows Phone 7 development tools

To prepare for the WP7 smartphone launch, Microsoft released free versions of development tools Visual Studio 2010, Silverlight 4 and Expression Blend 4 to help developers build apps for the new mobile devices. While the phones themselves are definitely not free, there are numerous examples of Microsoft offering free development tools. The main .Net Framework and related Silverlight platform are free, and Microsoft offers a free "Express" version of Visual Studio.

Office Web Apps

Microsoft's free online versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote launched this year when the company started offering Office Web Apps, a cloud-based consumer service. The free version of Office Web Apps is not intended for business use, but could be enticing to home users. However, some of the early reviews of Microsoft's cloud-based Office tools indicate that Google Apps is still superior.

Hyper-V

Microsoft's answer to VMware, the Hyper-V server virtualization platform is available for free, and also within new versions of Windows Server. Although most customers use Hyper-V to virtualize Windows, Microsoft has submitted source code to the Linux kernel to let Linux run on Microsoft’s hypervisor.

Windows Live Essentials

Designed to boost Windows PCs with several free programs, Windows Live Essentials includes a photo gallery, movie maker, instant messaging, e-mail and social networking. Also included is Live Writer for bloggers, and Live Mesh for syncing photos and documents between personal computers and the Microsoft SkyDrive cloud service.

Windows Azure Platform Introductory Special

Windows Azure itself is not free, but Microsoft is offering free access in a special offer that expires on March 31, 2011. The offer includes 25 hours of a small compute instance each month along with 500MB of storage and 10,000 storage transactions.

SQL Server 2008 R2 Express

Microsoft makes plenty of cash by selling SQL Server, but does offer this free version for "developing and deploying desktop, web, and small server applications." While not as fully-featured as paid versions, the free download offers 10GB of database storage, the same core database engine used in other versions of SQL Server, and is compatible with SQL Server 2008 and the SQL Azure Database cloud service. Separately, Microsoft offers SQL Server Compact, a free database for building mobile, desktop and Web applications.

Search Server 2010 Express

Microsoft unveiled a free search server in 2007, and has continued updating its free search capabilities, now available with Search Server 2010 Express. The software requires Windows Server 2008. Think of it as Google (errr… Bing) for your business systems.

BizSpark

BizSpark is not a single product. Instead, Microsoft says it is a free three-year program designed to help software start-ups grow by offering them access to "development tools, platform technologies and production licenses of server products (including Windows Azure Platform)." To qualify, start-ups have to be fewer than 3 years old and have less than $1 million in revenue. By nurturing the next generation of tech start-ups before they're profitable, Microsoft is really hoping to create future waves of paying customers.

Leftovers

Not everything that's "free" is really free. Internet Explorer is free, of course, but only officially works on Windows PCs, and IE9 only works on Windows 7 and Vista. Microsoft also boasts of the free System Center Virtual Machine Manager Self-Service Portal, but the system requirements show that customers must first acquire Windows Server, Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 Administrator Console and SQL Server 2008.

However, Microsoft does offer a 180-day trial for System Center VMM and similar trials for numerous other products.

Microsoft also offers free training programs to those who have paid for its software, including a set of free end-user training tools released this year for Microsoft Office and Windows 7.  

Microsoft also offers some free tools for migrating users to Windows 7, such as the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit and the User State Migration Tool. (See also: 11 tools for Windows 7 migrations)

Those Windows 7 licenses will cost you $200 to $300 apiece, however.   

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