Microsoft is attempting to drum up interest in its upcoming Windows Mobile Marketplace with the launch of a competition for application developers – and the prize is a doozy.

The Race To Market developer challenge, being run simultaneously in 29 countries, is offering a developer edition Microsoft Surface table to four lucky winners – along with “online marketing and promotion” for their app and “a one-of-a-kind trophy.” The Surface multitouch rear-projected marvels have, so far, not been released as a product outside small trials – and the draw of getting their hands on an early version may well tempt developers away from rival platforms.

According to BetaNews, there are four categories – each of which will stand a chance of winning a Microsoft Surface table. The first is pretty straightforward: the free application which enjoys the most downloads over the judging period. The next is an easily measurable metric as well: the paid-for application which is “most valuable,” measured by number of downloads multiplied by price.

The remaining two categories are rather more nebulous, and entirely at the discretion of the company's panel of judges: “most playful” and “most useful.

The competition is both a method of encouraging innovation in the new arena of the Windows Mobile Marketplace and a way for the company to play catch-up: as one of the last to launch a centralised marketplace for mobile applications, Microsoft needs to do something to tempt developers away from already established platforms such as Apple's iPhone and iPod App Store and Google's Android Marketplace.

The official competition website offers instructions for those wishing to enter – but you'll want to be quick, as the measuring period for download-based metrics starts “on the date that the Marketplace opens to the public and ends at 11:59 p.m. [Pacific Time] on December 31, 2009” - the same date as the competition winds up. The earlier you enter, the more downloads you're likely to accrue.

Any mobile developers hoping to get your hands on a Surface of your very own, or are you still too busy trying to get your hands on O2's £10,000 prize for iPhone development? Any ideas for a “playful [or] useful” app? Share your thoughts over in the forums.

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