Microsoft released the preview version of a software toolkit for building robot applications on Tuesday, pledging to ignite the robot market in the same way it did the PC market some 20 years ago.The software maker sees robotics as being on the verge of a rapid takeoff, fueled by the availability of cheap, high-performance hardware components. But the market is being held back by a need for better tools and a common software platform that allows applications to be reused on different types of robots, according to Microsoft.Enter its Robotics Studio, a package of tools and runtime software that the company will demonstrate Tuesday at the RoboBusiness conference in Pittsburgh, Pa. A technical preview of the software is available now for free download. It is aimed at all types of robot builders, from commercial users to academics and hobbyists. Microsoft will also announce that it is funding a new robotics center at Carnegie Mellon University, due to open late this year. It didn\u2019t disclose the size of its investment.The company\u2019s entry into the field is a vote of confidence that could help expand the market in areas like home robotics kits, or services applications such as robots that clean floors. It\u2019s not the first company to make such a play; rival Sun Microsystems has long promoted its Java software for robot applications.Stephen Cameron, a robotics expert with Oxford University\u2019s Computing Laboratory, said Microsoft appears to be focusing on areas like robotic vehicles rather than on serious industrial applications, where precise equipment requires the use of high-end algorithms."It\u2019s also bringing in some stuff from the computer games side to make the simulation of a system easier. You can build up a virtual robot and make it jump around and do stuff before you build the actual robot itself," Cameron said. That capability comes from the PhysX processing engine Microsoft has licensed from Ageia Technologies.Microsoft has also partnered with Lego Group, which makes the Mindstorms kit for building robots. The companies may hope to market a combined product for the holiday shopping season, Cameron noted. A common software platform for robots doesn\u2019t really exist today, so Microsoft\u2019s efforts will be interesting to watch, he said. "Right now it\u2019s a pretty specialized market."Microsoft\u2019s platform is for robots that either run Windows or act as clients connected to Windows PCs, according to its robotics website. It will provide technical information so that other software and hardware vendors can make their products compatible with its tools.Microsoft Robotics Studio includes a software runtime, or execution environment, that can run in a variety of devices with hardware ranging from 8-bit processors up to 32-bit systems with multicore processors. It also includes visual programming tools for creating and debugging applications.The tools include a handful of software libraries and services, but Microsoft is counting on third parties to flesh these out and extend its platform, it said. Programs can be developed using the languages in Microsoft\u2019s Visual Studio and Visual Studio Express products\u2014C# and Visual Basic .Net\u2014as well as its JScript and Iron Python languages.The software released Tuesday isn\u2019t ready yet for commercial use, Microsoft said, and it didn\u2019t offer a timetable for shipping the final product. Technical previews are typically used to gather feedback that\u2019s used to refine the product before it\u2019s finalized.Tandy Trower, the general manager of Microsoft\u2019s robotics group, likened the state of the robotics industry to that of the PC industry in its early days. Among the problems: Hardware is fragmented, applications aren\u2019t portable, and good development tools are missing, he wrote on Microsoft\u2019s website.Microsoft hopes that by providing a common software platform for robots, and encouraging third parties to create compatible applications and tools, it will be able to grow the industry much as its ubiquitous Windows operating system\u00a0did for PCs.-James Niccolai, IDG News Service (Paris Bureau)This article is posted on our Microsoft Informer page.\u00a0For more news on the Redmond, Wash.-based powerhouse, keep checking in.Check out our CIO News Alerts and Tech Informer pages for more updated news coverage.