Redmond sees an expanded role for its smart device operating system as connected devices, from tractors to toasters, go mainstream.
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Windows Embedded, long the silent partner in Microsoft's operating system franchise, is getting an overhaul that the software maker says will make it an equal player alongside the desktop, tablet, and phone versions of the operating system, as everything from toasters to tractors get wired to the cloud.
To date, Windows Embedded has been known mostly as a niche product that powers specialty devices like handheld scanners and commercial touchpads. But Microsoft sees a more prominent role for the OS, which is basically a subset of the full version of Windows, in a world of increasingly connected, intelligent devices and machines.
"We're seeing explosive growth in connected devices, it's an area where Microsoft can be mainstream and it's really a new category," said Barb Edson, senior director for Windows Embedded marketing, in an interview Monday.
IDC predicts that the market for intelligent systems will grow from the present 800 million units to 2.3 billion units by 2015, becoming a $520 billion industry.
Microsoft believes much of the growth will be driven by the fact that even companies that are not in the device business will, to stay competitive and reduce costs, at some point have to equip their products with smart sensors that can feed usage and maintenance information to product managers. That's especially true as everyday appliances like televisions and coffee makers, as well as industrial equipment, become increasingly sophisticated and expensive.
"It's a pretty broad business that, until recently, has been under the radar," said Edson, who noted that the emergence of smart appliances and other products will present a range of new challenges for CIOs in industries that in the past had little or no contact with their offerings once they were out the door. "IT is going to have a more important role" in managing data for industries ranging from retail to manufacturing, said Edson.
Microsoft is also looking to provide native support for Kinect applications in Windows Embedded, and envisions scenarios in which the software will be used to provide workers in industries from healthcare to manufacturing touch-free control over devices. "We don't have an announcement around Kinect today, but we're definitely working on it," said Edson.
Microsoft's main competition in the embedded OS market is Linux. Distributors like Santa Clara, Calif.-based MontaVista are modularizing the open source operating system for use in small form factors and packing it with tools and management services. MontaVista has even tweaked Google Android for embedded use.
And Apple's iPad is starting to show up in some markets, such as point-of-sale systems, in place of devices that were typically powered by embedded systems.
But Microsoft insists such offerings are of limited value if they're not linked to a larger infrastructure that can store massive amounts of big data generated by smart devices, analyze it, and send updates back to the device in near real-time. "We look at this as an opportunity to take some of the traditional Microsoft competitive advantages to this new industry," said Edson.
One platform Microsoft is counting on to make it a leader in the intelligent device systems market is Windows Azure, which runs in the cloud. Future versions of Windows Embedded will link devices directly to backend services like storage and data analysis that run on Azure, a setup that could reduce the time and expense of managing field data generated by smart products.
A key component of this architecture could be StreamInsight, Microsoft's platform for complex event processing (CEP) and big data analysis. Microsoft recently announced a project, codenamed Austin, under which it plans to deliver StreamInsight services on Azure. "We're looking at the licensing model around that from an embedded perspective on specialized devices," said Edson.
As an infrastructure provider for smart device networks, Microsoft will go up against IBM, which is offering a range of cloud-based big data storage and analytics services under its Smarter Planet and Smarter Cities initiatives.
The next versions of Windows Embedded will align closely with Windows 8. "We're making sure we support all the latest developer tools and frameworks, and looking at specific technologies like touch, gesture, and making sure they're finetuned for the embedded area," said Edson. And, like Windows 8, the next version of Windows Embedded Standard will support ARM's system-on-a-chip architecture for smart devices.
Rollouts of the next versions will be in cadence with Windows 8's debut, which is expected sometime in 2012, though Microsoft has not confirmed a date. Windows Embedded Enterprise v.Next, which is aimed at applications like ATMs and kiosks, will ship one quarter after Windows 8 for PCs.
Windows Embedded Standard v.Next, for consumer and commercial mobile devices, will launch nine months after Windows 8, with a community technology preview slated for the first quarter of 2012. Windows Embedded Compact v.Next, for smart devices, will ship in the second half of 2012 and introduce support for Visual Studio 2010. "The embedded space is very critical to Microsoft," said Edson.