At last Microsoft seems to have realized that if it is going to get the range of apps for WP8 that you find on other phones it has to make it free to create them. In this case free is also limited - but it's a start!
One of the most worrying and annoying trends is the move to registered development environments. There was a day when you bought some hardware and got on with programming it, but today you might well have to sign up to developer "club" and even pay money before you can start work creating your app.
Microsoft has been following Apple's lead in requiring registration for its developers. You have to register to develop Windows 8 applications, for example, and for Windows Phone 8 you have to also pay $99 per year to run your apps on a real phone - or you did until a few days ago.
Now you can download the development software for free and run your demo code on the simulator or on a real phone without having to pay a cent. There are restrictions, as you might have guessed. You can only unlock one phone and you can only install two 'work in progress apps'. It isn't clear what a 'work in progress app' is but it is clear that the intention isn't that you get to treat it as a sideloaded private app for long-term use.
It seems that all you have to do to unlock your single phone is to use the registration tool that comes with the SDK and in the process you need to supply the details of a your Microsoft account (what used to be a Windows Live Id).
The blog announcement says:
"So now you can get started with Windows Phone dev using *any* PC running Windows 8 (any edition) at no charge (well, you need a handset obviously ). Only caveat is that your PC and Windows 8 OS still needs to be 64 bit, as that is a requirement of the SDK."
The main reason for the move is most likely the new Windows Phone App Studio developer tool that can be used by non-programmers to create a WP8 app or by programmers to prototype apps. It would make no sense at all to have a $99 fee before you could try out an app created using a system with such a casual approach to app creation. What is interesting is that, rather than restricting the feature to App Studio, Microsoft seems to have opened it to everyone.
If this is true then it really is a step, if a slightly over-controlled step, in the right direction. WP8 has one of the simplest development systems of all of the current smartphones and there are a lot of programmers who know enough to start creating phone apps without having to invest a lot of time thinking about it. What this means is that by charging $99 Microsoft has been missing out on a lot of "casual" programming effort by placing a barrier to actually getting started.
If you do decide that you want to sell the app in then you will have to had over the $99 per year to register. At the moment, however, Microsoft has a special offer running until August 26th of $19 for this year.