Microsoft's Strategy for Embedded Wireless

With three platforms in play, Microsoft plans increasingly competitive embedded wireless products. John Ruley attended a recent technical conference and interviewed Microsoft officials for the details.

Two weeks ago, Microsoft invited more than 1000 embedded-systems developers to Las Vegas for a 4-day technical conference. I presented some highlights in a news story from the conference. In this special issue of Mobile & Wireless UPDATE, I'll examine Microsoft's embedded strategy in more detail.

Microsoft currently employs a complicated (some might say confusing) embedded-systems strategy that includes three OS platforms: Windows CE, embedded NT, and a Server Appliance Kit based on Windows 2000 Server (Win2K Server). At the conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced that Microsoft is moving to combine the latter two in a new embedded version of the forthcoming Windows 2000 XP OS, set to debut 90 days after the release of Windows XP, which is expected this fall. Talisker, the code name of the next major version of Windows CE, will ship late this year or early next year.

I interviewed Bill Veighte, Microsoft's vice president for embedded and appliance platforms, who has overall responsibility for Microsoft's entire embedded-systems effort. I first asked about the breakdown between Windows CE and Windows XP and NT. Veighte answered, "First, Windows CE isn't a server platform. Second, Windows XP embedded is x86-specific and won't run on multiple CPU families." Veighte called Windows CE "a great lightweight platform," and noted that it might not always have "the latest and greatest desktop innovations \[but\] it will have the very best mobile stuff. . . . You'll see bleeding-edge wireless, and I've explicitly directed our team, for example, to take the time to get Internet Explorer (IE) right for the platform in the next release."

As for Windows XP Embedded, Veighte said "We will go the other way—time to market and features are more important than size." When I asked about particular reasons why Windows XP Embedded must be limited to x86 processors, Veighte replied, "It's purely a business decision—nothing technically would prevent us from moving to a non-Intel processor."

In the mobile space, Microsoft continues to push Windows CE but also makes an active effort to promote server-based communication to devices such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-based phones through its Mobile Information Server and forthcoming .NET Compact Framework products. I asked Veighte about the apparent conflict between supporting both "fat-client" Windows CE-based devices and non-Windows mobile devices. Veighte replied, "We see two inflection points: The cost and ubiquity of wireless and the interoperability of the data. We're now the leading provider of thin clients."

He continued, "Think about a home in the future: Does it make sense to have heavyweight clients everywhere—or are some of them just screens? Are all devices going to be thin clients? That depends on whether you have a continuous connection—look at the Vail ski resort, which loses hundreds of thousands \[of dollars\] per year in lost or stolen tickets. The resort now uses a Symbol device to scan passes—which gets lots of interesting information, and checks for stolen passes—and, very important, lets you buy a pass right then and there. That requires intelligence at the edge of the network. We think there will be smart devices at the edge of the network; a lot of data is generated and resides on PCs and a lot on servers; we intend to give devices access to data wherever it resides."

I asked about a recent news story claiming that Microsoft didn't place among the top 20 embedded-system vendors. Veighte, amused, replied, "They didn't get their facts right. I can't give you specific numbers, but I watch Wind River very carefully, and I believe my revenue figures are better. I know I'm growing faster than Wind River is." Since many believe that Wind River is one of the top two embedded-OS vendors, Microsoft apparently considers itself among the top three.

When IS/IT managers attempt to incorporate Pocket PCs and other Windows CE-based devices into organizations, they often complain about Microsoft's ActiveSync software, which supports data synchronization between a user's Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and desktop PC only. Asked about those difficulties, Veighte tacitly acknowledged the problem. "ActiveSync is our device-to-device sync. We're making investments in server-to-device sync—first via Mobile Information Server, which is focused on Exchange \[Microsoft's email system\]. If you think about it, the only reason RIM's Blackberry \[wireless email\] device exists is because the server-to-device email problem hasn't been solved."

"We also need to provide better device manageability. We need a pipe and device semantics. We also aren't sure how to handle what Windows Update does—cable operators, for instance, aren't interested in having us provide that kind of service—it's their business."

Chip Schnarel, group program manager for Windows CE OS Development, expanded upon Veight's comments. When I described the problem I encountered trying to load a wireless Ethernet driver onto my Windows CE-based device at the conference (see Wireless & Mobile UPDATE, February 15, 2001 for details), Schnarel side-stepped my concerns. "I want to differentiate the capabilities we build into the Windows CE OS from what an OEM chooses to include in a particular product."

Schnarel then detailed Microsoft's series of technical capabilities to permit modular in-the-field updates using any combination of ROM, RAM, and/or Flash memory. This capability supports adding new components and addresses reliability and security concerns. "At boot time, the system can check to see whether data has a valid checksum or a valid security certificate. Failing either of those, the system can get a new image using standard protocols over an Ethernet internal router (IR) or wireless or dial-in connection."

Can such a capability lead to an update of Windows for Windows CE? "That's more a political than a technical issue. It might make sense for platforms such as Pocket PC, but not for embedded devices."

What about Microsoft's Stinger platform for Windows CE-based smart cell phones? "Considering the players in that area, and their desire to keep tight control over their devices," Schnarel doesn't expect a Windows update site for Stinger.

Microsoft receives significant third-party support for both the Windows CE and Windows XP Embedded product lines. At the conference, several dozen companies participated in a trade show. I found Bsquare's new iWin Information Appliance Development Kit among the more interesting products. It provides complete remote management, including software update, remote reboot, and so on. A license for the front-end UI costs $19,000. The back end, however, sells for about $900 per server.

NEC highlighted a new version of the V4131 RISC processor for Windows CE devices. The processor is superscalar with dual pipelines, much like a Pentium. Sampling in a 200MHz version NEC demonstrated that the new processor offers up to double the performance of the 200MHz ARM chip in the iPaq, and the new chip used only about half the power.

Symbol showed a wide range of industrial devices, some compatible with the Pocket PC and others with dedicated, embedded UIs. All require some form of wireless, such as 802.11b or Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM). Last year, Windows CE accounted for slightly less than 50 percent of Symbol's mobile-device business; the firm expects that figure to increase this year.

I've followed Microsoft's efforts in the embedded space since Windows CE 1.0 debuted in 1996. The messy process has included numerous false starts, but I'm impressed with the range of products now available and with the devices based on Microsoft's products. In my opinion, however, Microsoft falls short of perfect solutions to all problems. For instance, I don't see the Pocket PC edition of Windows CE as a serious threat to Palm's dominance of the PDA market.

Nevertheless, Microsoft's effort and commitment in the embedded field deserves watching. Not only have Microsoft's offerings continued to evolve (Talisker will be the fourth major revision of Windows CE), but the company's vision has expanded to embrace products spanning the entire range of wireless devices, from shirt-pocket PDAs to embedded servers. As we move from a world of isolated devices to one in which all are connected, that's bound to pay off.

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