Microsoft has announced the Made In Express contest (http://www.madeinexpress.com), which encourages people from the IT community to submit ideas about interesting solutions they can build by using SQL Server Express and Visual Studio Express. Contest judges will select 12 finalists to compete for a grand prize of $10,000. Here's a quick snippet from a Microsoft announcement about the contest:

"The Made In Express Contest is all about people expressing their creativity and passion through technology. From music aficionados who build their own digital music players and libraries, to amateur weathermen who create weather web services, we want to showcase cool people doing cool things with Visual Studio Express and SQL Server Express Editions."

The contest has two phases. The Idea phase lets anyone submit an idea for "what cool thing I would build with Express if I am picked as a finalist." You must submit your idea by April 30, 2006. Independent judges will screen all submissions, select 12 finalists, and announce their choices by May 15. Finalists will then have until August 6 to wow the judges and the community with their work. The grand-prize winner will get $10,000 cash, two runners up will win $1,000, and all remaining finalists who complete a project will win a $250 gift card.

$14,000 in prizes is a clever and (for Microsoft) awfully inexpensive way to generate a lot of community interest in SQL Server Express. In addition, the contest should enlighten many people about the reality that SQL Server Express and Visual Studio Express are powerful tools for developing production-quality applications. Microsoft likes to downplay the threat of competition from open-source database products such as MySQL, but open-source products are attracting a larger market share each year. Cost is certainly a driving factor behind that growth.

Microsoft needs to walk a fine line between making SQL Server Express powerful enough to do "real things" but not so powerful that it will cannibalize paid versions of SQL Server on the lower end of the customer base. However, SQL Server Express is well suited for many production-quality database applications as long as you can live within the performance and feature limitations of the product. The Made in Express contest home page seems geared to hobbyists, but I suspect that many of the people who enter the contest will be professional developers having some fun on their own time. If that's true, the contest should go a long way toward giving the professional IT community a better sense of where, when, and how SQL Server Express can be viable tools for certain classes of live, production applications.

Check out http://www.madeinexpress.com for more information about Made In Express. Who wants to relax at the beach with a good book when you can build cool SQL Server applications over your summer vacation?