SANTA CRUZ, Calif. Claiming the most extensive upgrade to its real-time operating system (RTOS) in recent years, Microsoft Corp. rolled out Windows Embedded CE 6.0 Wednesday (Nov. 1). The move reflects a renewed push by the software giant into the embedded consumer, industrial and telecom markets.
With the new release, Microsoft is opening the entire Windows CE kernel through the company's “shared source” program. The company has also re-engineered the kernel to support up to 32,000 simultaneous processes with 2 Gbytes of virtual memory address space per process. Finally, Microsoft has integrated the Visual Studio Professional 2005 software development suite with the Windows CE Platform Builder integrated development environment (IDE).
“We're adding capabilities to Windows CE that make this change as significant to the operating system as our move on the desktop from Windows 95 to Windows NT,” said Todd Warren, corporate vice president of the mobile and embedded devices product group at Microsoft. “Windows CE 6.0 breaks through the limitations people have encountered in the past, and is applicable to a much more powerful set of devices.”
“Windows CE has been, and currently is, the non-desktop strategy for this company,” said Jason Stolarczyk, marketing manager for Microsoft's embedded devices product group. “98 percent of all CPUs built today are in the embedded space, and by 2010 we're going to have something like 14 billion connected embedded devices. It's going to be very important from a Microsoft standpoint.”
Microsoft does appear to be moving forward in the RTOS market. According to Daya Nadamuni, analyst at the Gartner Dataquest Design and Engineering Group that's shutting down this week, Microsoft was the number one RTOS provider with 29 percent market share, or $221 million, in 2005. Moreover, she said, its revenues grew 42 percent over 2004.
In a recent annual survey of embedded software developers conducted by CMP Media's Embedded Systems Programming magazine, respondents identified Wind River's VxWorks as the most frequently used RTOS. But Microsoft Windows CE and Windows XP for Embedded were both virtually tied for second place, and showed particular strength in industrial and computer-related applications.
Windows CE has a ten-year history. It took “two or three years” for Microsoft to get the specs right, Nadamuni said, but today Windows CE enjoys widespread use in smart phones, bar-code scanners, PDAs, and other industrial and consumer applications. Lacking security classifications, it's not used in mission-critical applications, she noted.
Windows CE 6.0, said Nadamuni, “is one of the better releases of Windows CE we've seen in the last 10 years. It puts them in a stronger position in the consumer electronics market, and it says Microsoft cares about this market and is here to stay.”
Unlike Windows XP, which is based on the desktop operating system, Windows CE was designed from the ground up to be an RTOS. It hasn't always been an easy road. “We've bumped our knees and we have hit walls,” said Microsoft's Stolarcyzk. “We learned from it. We're at a place now where we feel we not only provide a great kernel and easy to use tools, but we're also allowing the product to scale for the future.”Microsoft tipped some of the Windows CE 6.0 improvements, but not all, at its annual Mobile and Embedded developer's conference in May. One new feature that was discussed in May is the kernel redesign, which overcomes a previous limit of 32 simultaneous processes and boosts the virtual memory available per process.
This development, said Stolarczyk, will serve multimedia applications that need to run many simultaneous processes. But who can make use of 32,000 simultaneous processes? “We don't know, because it's never existed before,” Stolarczyk said. “It's a complete challenge to the development community, one I hope will be taken and run with.”
Not revealed until now, however, is Microsoft's decision to open the entire Windows CE kernel through the company's “shared source” initiative. Selected portions of the kernel had been available before. Shared source, said Stolarcyzk, lets software developers modify the code, recompile and redistribute it, without being required to share their improvements with a community of users. In this sense, it differs from a traditional open source approach.
Shared source appears to a Microsoft response to the popularity of embedded Linux. It also has a practical aspect. “Any time you provide access to the source, you allow the developer to better debug the device they're working with,” said Stolarczyk. To incorporate Windows CE in to a product, however, users must license it and pay royalties.
Windows CE 6.0 also claims to ease application development by tying Visual Studio, which claims 7 million users, to the Windows CE Platform Builder IDE. Visual Studio 2005 Professional will now include a plug-in for Platform Builder, and will ship with Windows CE 6.0. “Under one roof, you have the entire development chain from device to application,” Stolarczyk said.
Platform Builder differs from most other embedded IDEs because it's not based on the Eclipse framework. Further, Windows CE does not have Posix compliance, potentially limiting application portability. However, third-party companies such as Mapusoft provide products that bring a Posix abstraction layer to Windows CE, noted Mike Hall, senior technical product manager of Windows Embedded.
Other improvements in Windows CE 6.0 have to do with what Microsoft calls its “on the road,” “at work,” and “in the home” strategies. With the introduction of Cellcore data and voice components, Windows CE 6.0 claims to facilitate machine-to-machine data communications. At work, a new capability permits wireless networking between a Windows Vista based laptop and a projector. In the home, new multimedia capabilities help users develop networked media devices, digital video recorders and Internet-enabled set-top boxes.
A 180-day trial version of Windows CE 6.0 is available on line from Microsoft.