Microsoft woos device makers with renewed Windows Embedded CE

Microsoft Corp. Wednesday released the sixth generation of its Windows Embedded CE software, which is used to build real-time operating systems that power millions of smaller devices, from thin-client computers to point-of-sale appliances to Global Positioning System devices.

For the first time, Microsoft has made 100 percent of the kernel of the new Windows Embedded CE 6.0 tool kit available to developers through its Shared Source Initiative. That gives device makers an easier way to debug designs, without being required to share their plans with Microsoft, said Mukund Ghangurde, group product manager for Windows Embedded CE.

Also for the first time, Visual Studio 2005 Professional will ship with the new tool kit, while the older software for integrated development, Platform Builder, will ship as a plug-in for Visual Studio, Ghangurde said. He estimated that the new release has nearly 800 different operating system components and that previous versions of Windows Embedded CE are used by 4,000 device manufacturers.

For the same price as Version 5.0, Microsoft is drastically increasing the amount of virtual memory available in 6.0, from 32MB to 2GB, Ghangurde added. The new design can run 32,000 simultaneous processes, 1,000 times the 32 simultaneous processes that could run in Version 5.0, he said.

An evaluation kit is available from Microsoft’s Web site for free, while the tool kit and a single license to use Visual Studio and components costs US$995, he said. Each runtime license for shipping products will start at $3 but will drop in price based on volume. Included with the price is 10 years of support, including legal protection for a device maker’s intellectual property.

The new tool kit allows for “much more powerful and scalable sets of applications, and devices can be more intelligent,” Ghangurde said. In addition, new cell core data and voice components will enable devices to establish data connections and voice calls over cellular networks so that machine-to-machine communication applications can be expanded.

Two new point-of-sale products running an operating system based on Windows Embedded CE 6.0 components will be released in early 2007 by Micros Systems Inc. in Columbia, Md., said Kyle Kurdle, vice president of hardware development at the manufacturer. The company has been beta-testing Version 6.0 since about June, he said.

“We’re very excited about it,” Kurdle said. “The main feature is that there’s a whole new memory architecture in it, which opens up new options for us as far as the size of databases and capabilities of our devices, and yet it maintains the same small footprint.”

Micros sells to a number of retailers, including restaurants that might, for instance, keep enormous inventories of wine, he said. “The retailers potentially need access to larger databases,” which will be easier to access via 6.0’s larger virtual memory. With earlier versions of Windows Embedded CE, searches simply didn’t work, Kurdle said.

Having more memory “allows us to free up programmers to be a little less concerned about tight memory management,” he said.

The Shared Source kernel will also allow Micros to expand operating system functionality and then have access to it for troubleshooting its designs, Kurdle said. “This makes Microsoft a stronger competitor to Linux, which is obviously what they’re targeting,” he said.

Micros evaluated Linux open-source software for its operating systems about four years ago. It went with Windows Embedded CE, which was “at least as cost effective as Linux,” given the ongoing support needs, he said. By using a Windows Embedded CE operating system in its machines instead of Windows XP Professional Edition, Micros has found its costs have dropped about 30 percent. In fact, Kurdle said, the Windows Embedded CE OS alone was just $15 per machine for all costs, down from $150 for XP Professional.

Still, Micros uses PCs for some of its products, when more functionality is required. “Sometimes that line is crossed where you need a PC,” Kurdle said.

Rob Helm, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent firm in Kirkland, Wash., said the completely rewritten Windows Embedded CE 6.0 will make it possible to build an operating system that more efficiently runs applications not developed at the same time by the same developer. With previous versions, some applications didn’t work well together, he said.

The logic of how memory is used also changed, so that one application can’t write to another application’s memory, which has happened in previous versions. “With a bunch of applications running at once, there was the potential of stopping each other,” Helm said.

He said there are many advantages to the new tool kit, but he predicted that “there won’t be quick adoption” by the developer community, partly because backward compatibility is “not perfect.” As a result, “there will be a slower uptick with 6.0 than with prior versions,” Helm said.

Another analyst, Daya Nadamuni of Gartner Inc., said providing the kernel through Shared Source “is a big plus for Microsoft and a departure from their previous behavior.” Windows Embedded CE had a reputation of not being very developer-friendly, Nadamuni said. But the new version reverses that trend, allowing a developer to pick and choose the pieces needed with flexibility because memory is not constrained, she said.

Nadamuni said that more than 60 companies provide real-time operating systems to application and device developers, but she called Microsoft and Wind River Systems Inc. in Alameda, Calif. “the big daddies” in the business. Wind River uses a Linux derivative but also has a Unix-like proprietary operating system. More than half of the applications and devices, however, run small-footprint operating systems that are homegrown and proprietary, Helm estimated.

The current annual market for embedded operating systems and software licenses is about $1.8 billion, Nadamuni said.

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