The cloud will play a pivotal role in expanding the scope of embedded computing, according to a top official from Microsoft.
"Being able to capture the intelligence from the edge of the network will make a profound change in the value it can deliver for enterprises," said Microsoft Windows Embedded General Manager Kevin Dallas.
Embedded computing involves placing computer processors within common objects -- such as refrigerators and automobiles -- in order to collect data, guide operations and offer user interactivity.
"The real value around the devices is their ability to capture the data, analyze that information and drive business efficiencies," Dallas said.
Although embedded devices are nothing new, their use is rapidly growing, thanks to the plummeting costs of processors and the growing ubiquity of the Internet. Shipments of embedded systems will increase from approximately $1.4 billion in 2010 to $3.3 billion in 2015, according to IDC.
This idea of cheap and plentiful network-connected embedded devices has been called the Internet of things. Although predicted for many years, such an Internet of things may actually take hold thanks to cloud computing services such as Microsoft Azure.
"The idea of the 'Internet of things' has been around for many years, but it is the cloud that provides the missing element," Dallas said.
Owners of vending machines, for instance, could benefit by outfitting their machines with processors and connecting them to a network. A small system embedded inside a machine can keep a tally of which snacks or other items are being sold. The owner of a series of vending machines can get a running tally of all the snacks being sold across all the machines.
"Instead of sending a human out to determine when a machine needs to be updated or topped off, the machine itself will notify the corporation," he said. "It gives you more intelligence over which of these vending machines need to be restocked, and which ones don't."
Overall, he predicted that end-devices will still do about "80%" of the processing that needs to be done to the data it collects, Dallas said. Such devices can summarize the raw data and send the results to back-end facilities.
Microsoft's suggestion of marrying embedded and cloud computing is not surprising, given the company's recent enthusiasm for all things cloud. Earlier this month, the company indicated that it would spend 90% of its 2011 research and development budget on developing cloud-related technologies.
Forrester Research predicts that cloud computing will become a $241 billion market by 2020, up from $40.7 billion in 2011.
Dallas noted that Microsoft is in the position to offer customers a "composite platform" that spans from the endpoint device to the back-end cloud computing infrastructure.
"We are doing this today. This is here and now," he said. "You have a cloud platform that is capable of doing the computing you need for these devices."