Microsoft looks to avoid losses to Linux in embedded OS market

Software vendor retools Windows Embedded line in effort to fight off open-source advances

Microsoft Corp. today announced plans to rejigger and expand its Windows Embedded family of operating systems in an attempt to enlist developers of handhelds and other devices to help the software vendor combat increasing competition from Linux.

For example, Microsoft is developing new versions of Windows Embedded CE and Windows XP Embedded, its two primary embedded operating system lines, that will be rebranded as Windows Embedded Compact and Windows Embedded Standard, respectively. An upgrade of the XP software is scheduled to launch on June 3, and a next-generation CE release will follow next year, said Ilya Bukshteyn, director of marketing for Windows Embedded.

Inspired by the marketplace success of a version of Windows XP Embedded that's tailored for use on point-of-sale terminals, Microsoft also plans to launch other vertical offerings this year, Bukshteyn said in an interview last week.

In addition, the software vendor is releasing instructional materials and a test for developers to certify themselves on its existing Windows Embedded CE 6.0 platform. And it will start offering free certifications of so-called board support packages — the custom piece of code that enables an operating system such as Windows Embedded to run on a particular piece of hardware.

Microsoft — which may also bypass Windows Vista and build the next major release of XP Embedded on top of the Windows 7 follow-on to Vista — made the various announcements at the Embedded Systems Conference Silicon Valley in San Jose. Earlier this year, the company canceled its Mobile and Embedded DevCon show, deciding instead to steer would-be attendees toward this week's vendor-agnostic conference or its own broader-based Tech-Ed 2008 event for developers in June.

All of Microsoft's moves are aimed at trying to convince mainstream Windows developers and Linux programmers to write software for Windows Embedded, especially the CE platform.

Venture Development Corp., a market research firm in Natick, Mass., gave Windows Embedded a 32% share of the $1.4 billion embedded operating systems market in 2006, according to a story published by EE Times last fall. In contrast, VDC gave commercial versions of embedded Linux a total market share of 8%, the story said.

But last October, VDC released the results of a survey (download PDF) in which embedded developers overwhelmingly said that they planned to use either free or licensed versions of Linux on their next projects instead of proprietary operating systems. "Linux remains an attractive operating system choice for a range of embedded development teams for a number of reasons, including: royalty-free runtime costs, advanced networking capabilities and technical features, [and] the large base of engineers familiar with the Linux operating system," the research firm said.

While Windows XP Embedded is essentially a cut-down version of XP with a smaller footprint, Windows Embedded CE is based on an entirely different kernel, which offers stronger crash-proof capabilities and an even smaller, diskless footprint.

Greg DeMichillie, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash., said that Microsoft's rebranding papers over the very real technical differences between CE and XP Embedded. "You can use the same tools and programming languages, but that's only one piece of the puzzle," DeMichillie said. "The CE devices are too different, and the programming models are different."

DeMichillie was generally positive about Microsoft's other plans, such as its decision to follow upon the success of its Windows Embedded for Point of Service (WEPOS) software among retailers by releasing more tailor-made embedded products.

WEPOS, which along with other flavors of Windows dominates the electronic cash register market, will be renamed Windows Embedded POSReady when a new version arrives next year. The upgrade of WEPOS will be based on Windows XP with some Vista features added in, Bukshteyn said.

Future additions to the Embedded Ready family may include operating system releases targeted at makers of GPS navigation devices, multifunction printers, digital picture frames and surveillance cameras, he added.

Microsoft is also creating what it calls the Windows Embedded Enterprise line. That basically includes unchanged premium versions of Windows XP or Vista that can be licensed by embedded developers who are working with larger machines and want full application compatibility. The operating systems that will be licensed for embedded use include Windows Vista Business and Ultimate, as well as Windows XP Professional.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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