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Buying the next generation of coders: Microsoft's Minecraft gamble

Simon Bisson | Sept. 11, 2014
When the newsbroke last night that Microsoft was in negotiations to buy Minecraft creators Mojang for $2 billion, people quickly started asking "why would Microsoft buy another gaming company?"

If Microsoft does purchase Minecraft, it's going to own an interesting set of educational technologies that the world thinks of as games. Beginners will be able to start creating Minecraft worlds before graduating to the programmable environments of Kodu and Project Spark. Users will be learning complex programming skills, while building distributed event-driven applications.

The only thing missing is the next step, from Project Spark's visual programming world to the Visual Studio IDE. That step makes a lot of sense, as programmable worlds like these exhibit many of the attributes of the programmable devices and sensors that are at the heart of the Internet of Things, a wider programmable world of ubiquitous computing devices.

You can take code from Microsoft's introductory programming tools like the Windows App Studio and work with it in Visual Studio, adding functions and features to generated code.

With its One Microsoft focus, perhaps it's time for Microsoft to tear down the walls between its gaming properties and its developer tools. Why shouldn't code migrate from Project Spark into Visual Studio, and vice versa? And if Microsoft does buy Minecraft, why shouldn't there be a Minecraft editor built into Visual Studio's Express editions?

Bringing game editors and development tools together makes a lot of sense, especially if games are extensible. It's an approach that offers an opportunity to teach key object-oriented and functional programming techniques, as well as giving a clear road from gamer to coder (and an opportunity for Microsoft's Internet of Things program to deliver code that runs on more than just Intel Galileo boards). Minecraft worlds run on Playstations, on Macs, on Linux, even on phones: Making Microsoft's developer tools familiar across a wider range of platforms as well.

There's an army of K12 students out there building worlds in Minecraft, and it's time to bring them into the rest of the computing world. Buying Mojang and Minecraft gives Microsoft a fascinating cross-platform route into tapping that skill base, from $25 Raspberry Pi devices to gaming consoles to the billions of PCs. Providing a link from the visual programming tools that power Minecraft and Project Spark to the code-driven world of Visual Studio will help bring that new generation of programmers on-board, and at the same time give them tools to build bigger and better games.

Two billion dollars is a lot of money for a games company with one product and a history of failed attempts at a second string. But when you look at those billions of dollars as a route to millions of new developers, all of whom have a background in distributed systems development, then it's not much of a price to pay. In ten years' time we could be looking back on a Microsoft Mojang acquisition as something much more than a gaming story, instead seeing it as a turning point in the growth of not just Redmond's developer platforms, but of the entire Internet of Things.


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