Redmond, Wash. — When Microsoft Corp. looks at the future of the CPU, it sees billions of networked, embedded devices. The software giant last week made a renewed push toward that future with Windows Embedded CE 6.0, said to be the most significant upgrade of that real-time operating system (RTOS) in recent years.
According to Gartner Dataquest, Micro- soft was the RTOS market share leader in 2005, having increased its revenue in the sector 42 percent over 2004. But the RTOS market is specialized and fragmented, and Microsoft's competitors have been quick to point out CE's shortcomings.
The new release overcomes previous processing and memory limitations. It makes the entire kernel available through Microsoft's “shared source” program and links Microsoft's Visual Studio application development environment with the Windows CE Platform Builder integrated development environment (IDE). “The changes we've made here are as pronounced as when we moved from Windows 95 to Windows NT in the desktop environment,” said Craig Mundie, chief strategy and research officer at Microsoft (see related interview, page 18).
Windows CE “is the nondesktop strategy for this company,” said Jason Stolarczyk, marketing manager for Microsoft's embedded devices group. “Ninety-eight 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.”
Microsoft last year claimed a 29 percent market share on $221 million in RTOS revenue, said analyst Daya Nadamuni at Gartner Dataquest's Design and Engineering Group, which ceased operations Nov. 1. Today Windows CE is widely used in smart phones, bar code scanners, PDAs and other industrial and consumer applications. Lacking security classifications, it's not used in mission-critical applications, Nadamuni said.
CE 6.0 “is one of the better releases of Windows CE we've seen” in its 10-year history, she said. “It says Microsoft cares about this market and is here to stay.”
Venture Development Corp. pegs Microsoft's 2005 market share at 28 percent. “Microsoft's share within the embedded software market has continued to increase year over year, particularly in consumer electronics applications,” said Stephen Balacco, embedded software analyst at VDC. “Microsoft's simple pricing structure and engagement model will continue to place pressure on competitors.”
One criticism of Windows CE was that it was limited to 32 simultaneous pro- cesses, with 32 Mbytes of virtual memory per process. The reengineered 6.0 kernel permits up to 32,000 simultaneous processes, with 2 Gbytes of virtual memory address space per process. That development, said Stolarczyk, will serve multi- media applications that need to run many simultaneous processes. But who can make use of 32,000?
“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.”
Meanwhile, Microsoft decided 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 Stolarczyk, lets software developers modify the code, recompile it and redistribute it, without being required to share their improvements with a community of users, as traditional open source would require.
Shared source appears to be a Microsoft response to the popularity of embedded Linux. It also has a practical aspect: Access to the source lets developers “better debug the device they're working with,” said Stolarczyk. To incorporate Windows CE into a product, however, users must license it and pay royalties.
CE 6.0 is said 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 CE 6.0.
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, CE 6.0 is said 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.
Chasing the competition
Microsoft's RTOS competitors remain unimpressed. “With this release, Micro- soft announced that they rearchitected their kernel yet again to meet the needs of the embedded device market, but it still looks like something from the RTOS world circa 1999,” said Steven Heintz, director of product management for developer tools at Wind River Systems.
Other RTOS providers already allow an arbitrary number of real-time processes, and Wind River has always provided access to VxWorks kernel code, Heintz said. He called CE 6.0 “a response to the growing momentum that commercial-grade Linux platforms are having on the device market.”
Some critics have said Windows CE uses too much memory. “Owing to its complexity, Windows CE is relatively large, which can make it unsuitable for deeply embedded systems,” said Michael Santos, director of engineering for operating systems at Green Hills Software. Santos added that limited Posix support in CE impedes application portability.
Mike Hall, senior technical product manager of Windows Embedded at Microsoft, acknowledged that CE isn't Posix-compliant but said third-party companies provide products that bring a Posix abstraction layer to the RTOS.
While Windows CE is ideal for consumer devices that require a human interface, it's “cumbersome” for high-perfor- mance device requirements, said Michael Christofferson, director of product management at Enea Embedded Technology. “Our belief is that Linux will start to become a strong competitor,” he said.
Mukund Ghangurde, group product manager of Microsoft's Windows embedded devices division, said it's possible to build a CE operating system image in as little as a few hundred kilobits. Actual memory requirements, he said, will de- pend on the application and the amount of communications it requires.
Windows CE has loyal users. “After evaluating the investment cost of developing for Linux, we determined that Windows CE was a much more cost-effective solution,” said Kyle Kurdle, vice president for hardware solutions at Micros Systems Inc. “The internal investment required to develop and maintain a Linux platform is significant.”
“We chose Windows CE 6.0 because of its road map, features, cost and widespread adoption,” said Nathan Chan, product-marketing manager at Centrality Communications Inc. Of particular value for the company's GPS devices, he said, is the inclusion of Cellcore capability in CE 6.0.
A 180-day trial version of Windows CE 6.0 is available now. CE 6.0 functionality will be brought into the Windows Mobile product in the future but is not included now, Ghangurde said.