When Visual Studio 2005 was launched, so were the “light duty” Visual Studio Express Editions which were made available free for one year as an enticement to their intended “Web hosting, hobbyist and enthusiast” market. Today, Microsoft took the logical next step and made them free permanently (press release), nominally based on requests from the rapidly growing community of users. Frankly, the original “free for one year plan” was so odd, one wonders if it weren’t just a ploy to get early adoption.
In any case, the Express editions (Visual Web Developer Express, Visual Basic Express, Visual C# Express, Visual C++ Express and Visual J# Express) are plenty capable and now join the already free SQL Server Express Edition. Examples of partner support are also featured in the press release. All of this is a loss leader for Microsoft, of course, with the intent of attracting more developers to the .NET platform.
You can download the Express editions here.