REDMOND, Wash., March 22, 2004 — Some day, drowsy motorists may hear a voice from their car’s dashboard suggesting they stop for a cup of coffee.
If so, that technological innovation might be the product of students participating in “Windows ChallengE,” a competition sponsored by Microsoft and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) Computer Society that seeks to empower students to work together on projects that foster excellence in computer science and computer engineering. This year’s competition asked student participants to address the theme of “Making the World a Safer Place” using Microsoft Windows CE .NET, an embedded operating system designed for compact computing devices.
Professor Alan Clements, a member of the IEEE Computer Society’s board of governors, says he chose the theme of “Making the World a Better Place” to reinforce the message that computer applications can be powerful instruments for positive change. For a team of four students at California State Polytechnic University, that theme translated into working on a problem all too familiar to Californians: the hazard of motorists falling asleep behind the wheel. The team devised a system in which a dashboard-mounted webcam scans a driver’s eyes for signs of “extended blinks,” an indication that a motorist is becoming sleepy. When the driver’s eye-flutter reaches a potentially dangerous threshold, an embedded software application built on Windows CE .NET kicks in, activating a warning to the driver.
The Cal Poly students were among 29 teams competing in this year’s Windows ChallengeE (the unconventional spelling is correct). Entries were due Dec. 1, 2003, and winners of Windows ChallengE were announced Sunday. Windows ChallengE entrants in turn are among hundreds of student and professional developers from around the world who compete for the opportunity to learn, gain recognition, win cash prizes and get a chance to market their products in a wide range of software-development competitions sponsored by Microsoft. Others include:
Imagine Cup, a technology contest that provides an outlet for students to explore their technological and artistic interests
You Can Make a Difference, a scholarship program that invites high school students to create software projects that benefits charitable organizations
The Mobile2Market Application Contest for logo-certified applications that can be deployed on Windows Mobile-based Pocket PCs and Smartphones
The joint Microsoft and Vodafone contest, showcasing applications that converge the PC and mobile experiences
The BizTalk Server 2004 developer competition, which recognizes programming excellence using BizTalk Server 2004 and Visual Studio .NET
The Tablet PC “Does Your Application Think in Ink?” contest, officially launching today, which seeks applications that utilize the digital ink capabilities of the Tablet PC.
To help spur innovation across the development industry, Microsoft’s competitions offer
individual developers and independent software vendors (ISVs)a chance at recognition for their technical skills and credentials, as well as a shot at cash prizes that can reach more than US$165,000. For instance, the grand prize winner of the Does Your Application Think in Ink contest will win $100,000.
Last year, 23-year-old Tu Nguyen took the top prize in the Imagine Cup, a competition aimed at tapping student innovations across a wide range of technology applications. Nguyen’s entry was brilliant in both its simplicity and its effectiveness, judges noted. His parents, immigrants to the United States from Vietnam, run a successful restaurant in Omaha, Neb., where Nguyen helped out. He noticed that the cooks, most of whom spoke Chinese or Vietnamese, had difficulty translating orders that were taken in English. So Nguyen developed a PDA-based translation program that runs on a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA). The waiter punches in each customer’s order on the PDA, and this information is translated into the chef’s native language on a display monitor in the kitchen. Chefs, in turn, can use Nguyen’s program to alert the waiter when a customer’s egg rolls are ready.
Nguyen’s success should hearten any prospective programmer. Although an information technology student at the University of Nebraska, he’s a relative novice at programming and thought he had no chance to succeed at developing applications using C++ or other advanced programming languages. So he boned up on Microsoft .NET technologies, figuring the relative newness of .NET leveled the playing field. And it did, as Nguyen’s kitchen solution won at both the national and international levels, earning him a prize of $25,000 last November. Moreover, it earned him credentials in the computing world, and potential customers have been calling him about adapting his solution to their own needs. “The Imagine Cup really helps students get recognized and gain some confidence as a programmer,” Nguyen says. “It sure helped my confidence.”
Encouraging creativity and innovation is a primary goal of competitions such as the Imagine Cup, as well as the other programming challenges Microsoft sponsors. “The competition is not about us, it’s about the students,” says Morris Sim, senior director of the Academic Developer Group in the Developer Platform and Evangelism Division at Microsoft. “What came out of last year’s Imagine Cup for the participants was a lot of exposure that really opened doors for them. While the cash rewards and trip to Barcelona (where the Cup finals were held) were certainly incentives, the recognition they won from their peers and their ability to take that experience with them into the employment field were even more important.”
Other Microsoft competition sponsors agree. “Hiring managers say that too often, college students come into the workforce without a really useful skills set,” says John Starkweather, senior product manager for Windows CE .NET, who helped administer this year’s Windows ChallengE. “These competitions give students the opportunity to tackle real-life scenarios and solve complex developer issues.”
The competitions encourage innovation throughout the industry and also help small developers who may not have access to key marketing channels but who have good ideas. Prize-winning applications in this year’s Microsoft Mobile2Market Application Contest, which focuses on “work-and-play” applications for Windows Mobile-based Pocket PCs and Smartphones, will be offered in trial versions when retail customers purchase Windows Mobile-based devices that can employ them. “The customer who tries these really great applications will then want to buy them,” says Daniel Bouie, marketing manager for Mobile2Market within the Mobile Devices Division. “That really helps small developers overcome the problems they can encounter with the distribution process.”
The competitions attract developers from around the globe and generate applications for a wide range of scenarios. The Microsoft and Vodafone developer contest generated more than 200 entries from more than a dozen countries, and the winning applications spanned multiple vertical industries. The contest also demonstrates how the two companies are working together to create new business opportunities based on the important work being done in the industry with Web services. “Our goal with this contest was to initiate and encourage broad application development that delivers innovative, integrated services for customers on both wired and wireless networks,” says Umaimah Mendhro, product manager for Microsoft Mobile Web Services. “We’re very excited to see so many innovative applications from all over the world that showcase the potential that mobile Web services bring to the developer community.”
A significant element to the Mobile2Market Application contest is assisting independent service providers (ISPs) with the application distribution process. In the mobile world, this is a critical step for success, yet it can be challenging as many small developers do not have the means to contact distributors and many distributors do not know how to discover cool, logo-certified applications, says Bouie. Mobile2Market is the “discovery” tool, he adds, and through theMobile2Market Application Contest, Microsoft hopes to enable more developers to deliver their applications to market and expand the entire mobile community.
Microsoft, while sponsoring the competitions, largely remains a neutral observer. For example, with the Does Your Application Think in Ink contest, judging will be performed by a guest panel that includes editors from Ziff-Davis Media Inc. publications and key industry analysts. Also, winners are free to use the prize money and recognition as they choose. “We want to encourage developers to submit their very best work to help foster innovative applications for all types of Microsoft platforms,” says Cory Linton, product manager of the Tablet PC division and manager of the Does Your Application Think in Ink contest. “For this contest, we’re looking for ISVs to come up with new applications that take advantage of the unique features of the Tablet PC platform.”
The competitions have proved extremely popular. The Imagine Cup, for instance, has drawn more than 500 teams from the United States alone, with other entrants representing more than 70 countries. “We’ve just been blown away by the response,” says Sim. And Microsoft competition managers get as excited as some of the participants. Ivan Joseph, a Microsoft product manager in the Embedded Appliance Platform Group who has worked closely with the Windows ChallengE entrants, says, “The experience has just been fabulous. The entrants are so enthusiastic, and their entries are just so cool.”
For Microsoft, the benefit is that someone’s contest entry could become the application that helps Microsoft’s own customers make the most of their products that use Windows CE, .NET, Tablet PC Edition, Web services or other Microsoft technologies and services. “I think it’s our responsibility to help showcase student and developer talent,” says Sim. “When the technology ecosystem is healthy, then Microsoft is healthy. So we like to encourage students to believe they can pursue a career in technology, and that it will be a rewarding career choice.”
It was for Tu Nguyen. He notes with a smile, “I’m not working at the restaurant any more.”