Tomorrow's embedded systems will be access points for a growing array of network services, according to executives at Microsoft Corp., which rolled out software last week to help enable the shift.
The Windows giant is also launching an initiative to reach out more broadly to hardware de-velopers as it competes with Linux to command a rising share of the embedded software market.
Analysts say Windows is running in a growing share of embedded systems, and those devices are increasingly linked to networks. But they add that it's too early to say exactly how big Web services will become in this highly fragmented sector or how the competition between Windows and Linux will play out.
In Microsoft's vision, embedded devices will troll networks automatically, seeking relevant services. They will also report their capabilities to networks to spawn a market for new services.
The release of Windows CE 6.0 R2 is the first big step in that direction. The code supports the so-called Devices Profile for Web Services, defined by Microsoft along with Canon, Ricoh, Intel and Lexmark. The spec defines ways to describe, discover and communicate securely with Web services.
The new version of CE also supports the Web Services for Devices interface in Windows Vista. And by employing thin-client components with autodetection capabilities, CE 6.0 R2 can connect to Windows Server 2008.
“Starting with this release, you will see over the next 12 months a new class of operating systems and tools focused on getting connectivity built into embedded systems in a way that that can enable finding and exposing new services,” said Kevin Dallas, general manager of the Windows Embedded Division, created in February as a standalone unit. “We will start with fundamental services like monitoring and managing devices, but there is a huge opportunity for things like location and advertising services on embedded devices.”
The shift is all about bringing the richness of networking to embedded systems in an easy-to-use way, said Ilya Bukshteyn, director of marketing for the Windows embedded group. Microsoft's OS will enable horizontal services that tap into hardware capabilities for data on location and other details, and its tools will help developers write Web services that run across embedded systems, he said.
About two-thirds of an estimated 3 billion embedded devices shipping this year will be connected to a network, management service or external navigation data, according to Microsoft. “It's too early to say if this means new products for us, but it certainly means new capabilities in existing products,” Bukshteyn said.
Like many Microsoft releases, CE 6.0 R2 packs a laundry list of new features. They include improved support for voice-over-Internet Protocol, three-way audio conferencing, videoconferencing, and a new font engine that supports plug-ins for global languages and support for multiple monitors.
R2 also improves links to two key Microsoft client applications. An embedded Windows Media Player now can be used as an object in other CE apps. If Internet Explorer 6.0 is deployed, it can take advantage of the new operating system's rendering techniques as well as enhanced on-device sound, with support for rich text editing and ActiveX controls. And because R2 is built on top of the existing kernel, users can employ existing development tools.
One complaint about previous versions of CE was that the OS was limited to running no more the 32 simultaneous processes using 32 Mbytes of memory per process. That caused a lot of code swapping. With the R2 version, up to 32,000 processes can run simultaneously, thanks to an enhanced virtual memory manager, eliminating process swapping.
In a move that emulates Windows archrival Linux, Microsoft is also reaching out to a broader set of hardware developers in a two-pronged initiative code-named Spark. Under Spark, Microsoft is offering bundles of its embedded OSes and tools, along with third-party hardware reference designs, at costs designed to appeal to academics and hobbyists. Bukshteyn said the packages will be available essentially for the price of the reference design hardware, typically a few hundred dollars. Commercial developers generally pay more than a thousand dollars just for the software.
“We think this could be where a lot of next-generation applications and devices will come from,” Bukshteyn said of the hobbyist and academic markets.
In addition, Microsoft will no longer charge to certify software written by third parties to enable new chips and other hardware to run on embedded Windows platforms. Certification used to cost about $1,500 for each board-support package created by a third party. Overall, Microsoft claims it is spending about $5 million in community and academic development.
Prior to the release, 10 vendors expressed support for the new version of CE, two of them with plans for hardware. STMicroelectronics will ship CE R2 software for an embedded Windows chip set aimed at set-top boxes and personal navigation devices. Systems integrator Adeneo Corp. will also provide a board support package.
The CE release comes less than two weeks after Google announced plans to ship free Linux software for cell phones in an effort to spawn a market for advertising and other services on handsets. The Microsoft executives, whose division does not include handset software, gave a nod to competition from Google and Linux.
“A company such as Google does have a very interesting play in cell phones and embedded services,” said Dallas.
“There are a lot of great devices shipping with Linux,” said Bukshteyn, “but in the embedded world we are not seeing a lot of innovation around Linux standards.”
According to market watcher Venture Development Corp. (Natick, Mass.), Microsoft commands a lion's share of the commercial market for embedded OSes, claiming 32 percent of the $1.4 billion total market in 2006. That's up from about 28 percent of a $1.1 billion market in 2005, VDC estimates. The figures include sales of OSes on cellular handsets.
By contrast, commercial sales of embedded Linux were only $110 million in 2006. But market researchers have no way of tracking the use of noncommercial versions of Linux and homegrown OSes, both of which are popular in the embedded market, said Stephen Balacco, director of embedded software analysis at VDC.
Microsoft faces a broad range of smaller competitors in the embedded space. Symbian and Wind River each command about 20 percent of the market, according to VDC. Enea, Green Hills, Linuxworx, MontaVista and many others each have single-digit shares.
About 47 percent of embedded developers currently say they use a commercial OS, 21 percent use a noncommercial open-source OS, 20 percent use homegrown software, and 10 percent use a commercial Linux version, according to an annual survey conducted by CMP Technology, publisher of EE Times.
“Homegrown software has the largest installed base in embedded, but that market is shrinking, and the new growth is being split between Linux and Windows,” said Bukshteyn.
As for Microsoft's push to marry embedded systems and Web services, Balacco said, “It will take time to tell [how significant it will be, but] clearly, increasing amounts of connectivity and data types are becoming important issues in embedded.”
VDC expects to survey users about Web services starting in 2008.
Whatever the dynamics, the embedded market represents a huge opportunity for Microsoft as the company's core PC market matures. Networked consumer devices may grow at a 30 percent clip, while PCs are expanding “at the level of the GDP or a little above that in the case of laptops,” said Bukshteyn.
Microsoft doesn't break out sales for its new embedded group. In October, however, the company said the former mobile and embedded group saw 70 percent sales growth in 2006, at a time when the whole company grew at 27 percent.
The company spent $100 million in the past two years on product development and associated costs in embedded. It is increasing its pace, spending an estimated $75 million in 2007 alone.
The Windows CE OS has come a long way since its debut in 1996. Developed for consumer electronics products (hence the CE designation), it's now an OS for masses of embedded products that require a small footprint. Version 2, which followed the original launch by two years, was really the first attempt at an embedded CE OS.