Embedded Windows and the Internet

Microsoft takes a long-haul approach to the infrastructure market

When I started thinking about this column and Internet infrastructure, I immediately began to wonder what progress Microsoft was making with its embedded OSs. More than 2 years have passed since Microsoft introduced Windows NT Embedded 4.0. Some of the features this OS introduced—for example, the ability to manage Internet infrastructure devices, such as routers and hubs, as if they were NT servers—were compelling for the NT systems administrator. Over the past 2 years, I've received a couple dozen email messages from hardware and software developers in response to previous articles and columns in which I asked for more details about the embedded NT code and development.

Welcome to the Family
I thought that the best place to look for links to all the cool embedded Windows infrastructure devices would be the Microsoft Web site, so I surfed to the Windows Embedded home page (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/embedded/default.asp). I discovered that Microsoft has substantially expanded its embedded systems programs. I had been paying peripheral attention to the market, and I knew that Microsoft was pushing Windows CE, but I was surprised by the scope of the company's embedded effort.

What started off as Windows NT Embedded 4.0 has expanded to the Windows Embedded Family: Windows CE .NET, the Windows 2000 Server Appliance Kit, and Windows XP Embedded. That's the good stuff. What's lacking is the wealth of embedded NT­based network appliances that I expected to see available by now.

Breaking into the Market
The infrastructure market might be the toughest nut Microsoft has to crack. The devices that currently run the Internet are, almost without exception, using some variant of the UNIX OS (not Linux, but genuine UNIX). And the perception still exists that no version of Windows is stable enough to run a reliable realtime device such as a network router. (I won't go into the fundamental fallacy of that statement; if you'd like to argue the point with me, send me an email message.)

So, despite Microsoft's plans to be a player in the router, hub, and switch market, the company didn't make much progress in that environment with Windows NT Embedded 4.0. Microsoft has been more successful with the Win2K Server Appliance Kit, however. Although the Win2K Server Appliance Kit is not a componentized version of Win2K, it is a mechanism for building headless Win2K servers, and many traditional PC server and storage vendors (e.g., Compaq, Dell, Maxtor) have built Network Attached Storage (NAS) boxes that run the appliance kit. Digging around on the Web sites of Microsoft's various server partners uncovers other devices that vendors have built on the Win2K Server Appliance Kit. Both Dell and IBM have weighed in with their own Web server appliances; this market has traditionally (if a 2-year-old market can have traditions) tapped Linux as its OS of choice.

Penetrating this space is a big win for Microsoft and speaks well of the viability of the company's embedded systems plans. Of course, Microsoft needs to get beyond embedded servers and storage devices if its embedded strategy is really to take off.

In terms of product volume, Microsoft appears to be more successful with the Windows CE devices than with products powered by its larger embedded OSs. Windows CE's success in the PDA space will fuel the OS's growth in other markets (e.g., terminals, set-top boxes, device control). For an overview of which Windows-powered devices you can find in the marketplace, go to the Windows Powered home page, at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/serverappliance/default.asp. Microsoft regularly updates this site with information about and links to products that use embedded Windows.

Focusing on the Future
Microsoft products might not soon control Internet infrastructure, or even be present within that infrastructure in any significant way, but without question, Microsoft controls the end points. With a complete lack of serious OS contenders for the desktop, Microsoft is free to focus on the next big markets: wireless devices and set-top boxes. Windows CE is making a strong bid to become the wireless-device OS of choice. The Palm OS is still the leading wireless OS, but Palm has been having financial problems as the company weathers the economic downturn of 2001. When you don't have money to spend, you leave an opening for your competitors—in this case, Windows CE devices. Two years ago, most analysts would have said that the Palm OS was unbeatable as the PDA OS of choice; now Palm and Microsoft are running neck and neck in sales volume.

As Microsoft turns up the heat in the wireless-device market, the company's next challenge is getting ready to play out: Xbox. The gaming culture is where the next generation of OS users and developers is coming from. Without the most hard core of these folks, Linux would still be a little-known OS toy for the serious computer hobbyist. Gamers are the people who make the effort to learn new and, more important, different computer technologies just to see how they work. My friends who are hard-core gamers also run Linux boxes. They like the feeling of independence that doing so gives them.

As this next generation of IT workers starts playing computer games on an Xbox—which runs a Microsoft OS and connects to a Microsoft backbone—we can assume that when they get jobs, they'll remember their enjoyable experience with a dedicated, reliable Microsoft device. This scenario takes us full circle. These people won't have any built-in prejudice against Microsoft; for them, UNIX is just another OS to learn, and they won't see any reason why all their infrastructure devices can't run some form of .NET. Such might not be a quick victory, but it could well be inevitable. Microsoft and the PC have taken 20 years to get to the dominant position on the end points of the computer universe. What's another 10 to go the rest of the way?

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