Microsoft is giving away development and design software to university and secondary-school students around the world through a programme aimed at fostering technology innovation worldwide.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is expected to unveil the DreamSpark programme today at Stanford University on the first stop of a US and Canadian college tour. The programme is also available in the UK, as well as Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the US. Microsoft said more than 35 million students worldwide have access to DreamSpark.

Software available via DreamSpark includes Microsoft's development environment, Visual Studio 2005 Professional Edition, and its web and graphic design toolset, the Expression Studio. Microsoft also is making available XNA Game Studio 2.0, SQL Server Developer Edition, Windows Server Standard Edition and other software and resources through the programme.

In the next six months Microsoft expects to extend the programme to college students in Australia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Japan, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia and other countries. And in the third quarter, the software will be available to high-school students as well, Microsoft said.

DreamSpark is part of a company-wide effort to work with local governments, communities and academic institutions worldwide to give potential technology workers a head start in the competitive job market to foster technology innovation and improve citizens' quality of life, especially in developing countries.

Microsoft is also trying to compete worldwide with open-source technologies such as Linux that are freely available to anyone and thus popular with student computer enthusiasts who may not be able to afford to purchase Microsoft products.

One major benefactor of DreamSpark is Aisec, an international exchange student programme. Its 28,000 students will get software such as Microsoft's Office productivity suite, said Michelle Galant, vice president of communications.

Aisec, which has 1,100 offices in 100 countries, will also use the company's Exchange email server, Gallant said. "It enables us to run offices and enables us to run our exchange programme," she said.