I saw an interesting question a couple of days ago on a Joel-on-software forum:
A poster lamented that his company had a rather "mature" IT platform, with a bunch of classic ASP code, Windows Server 2003, SQL Server 2005, and Office 2000, and the maintenance of the ASP code was getting prohibitively difficult. He asked the group's opinion about using the free "Express" editions of .Net versus making a platform switch to something like Java, which is "100% free".
You can read my response there, of course, but I'd like to expand on it a little here, because I think this scenario is really pretty common, and because I think the obvious problems here really do a pretty good job of masking some serious underlying problems, and I think most people are going to miss those. In fact, I'm going to do this as a two-part post, because both problems merit some discussion.
You bet you can.
The Express editions target the very same .Net 3.5 runtime platform as other Visual Studio tools. If you need to build large-scale Enterprise applications with the very latest bells & whistles, you might miss some of the features in higher-end versions of Visual Studio, but the real make-or-break feature is source code control integration. The idea here is pretty simple - source control integration is nice for individual developers, but it's a must-have for teams, and if you're developing in a team, Microsoft's position is that you really should upgrade. I think this makes sense, and it still provides an incredible amount of room for smaller-scale development.
I think the best way to think about this is to compare VS Express to whatever you're using today, and look at all the value you'd get for free. VS Express supports Master Pages, LINQ, MVC, Dynamic Data websites, and more. You can target the platform for your application (making VS 2008 the best platform you can use for developing .Net 2.0 applications).
Even if you decide to upgrade to a more capable version of Visual Studio, by the way, you should definitely check out the web resources for the Express Editions - there's a lot of great content there. Finally, I'm not sure if this is still true, but when I downloaded the Express Editions and registered them, I was able to download some free third-party controls, including SpreadsheetGear, which is worth the price of admission all by itself.
So, to paraphrase (badly, too, I might add) Ferris Bueller, if you have the means to pick up Visual Studio Team Edition or even Pro, I highly recommend it, but if you don't, don't let that stop you from getting started in .Net development. Download Visual Studio Express, and get started today!