Bill Gates is hoping to encourage budding software developers and designers with a new initiative.

The Microsoft chief unveiled the "DreamSpark" initiative at the start of a tour of US and Canadian colleges which kicked off with a speech at Stanford University.

The programme will give college and high school students around the world free access to technology tools used to develop and design software.

It will include access to tools to write software applications, design web pages or create new video games to run on the Xbox 360 console.

The development and design tools are available immediately to university students in the US, Western Europe and China, but Reuters reports that Microsoft has promised to eventually extend the programme to other countries and high school students, potentially reaching one billion students worldwide.

Chairman Bill Gates recounted to students how, as a teenager, he used to sneak in at night to a company that sold shares of time on a big mainframe computer to read the manuals and learn more about developing software.

He continued that getting such access could have been very expensive and he wants students not to have to fork out to develop their skills.

"I can relate very well to these student developers", Gates said in an interview with Reuters. "For students, any fee is a barrier."

Students can now download Visual Studio, Microsoft's main development tools used by professional developers, and Expression Studio.

Microsoft is also to make available XNA Game Studio software development tools for writing video games and offer students a free 1-year membership to the "XNA Creators Club" so they can bring those games to the Xbox 360 platform.

"For the individual developer ... getting their hands on these tools hasn't been that simple", Gates said.

Microsoft has made development and design software available to students before, but it was up to the universities to register for the programme.