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Embedded Software Vendors Shift Tactics In Linux's Shadow

Microsoft and Wind River are trying to make their technologies more attractive to developers of embedded systems.
CHICAGO — Driven by a hypercompetitive marketplace and the looming shadow of Linux, two of the biggest players in embedded software are shifting strategies in aggressive efforts to capture the minds and pocketbooks of developers.

Microsoft Corp. on Monday (June 28) will roll out its first-ever commercial-derivatives program for all licensees of Windows CE. The program, which lets developers modify and redistribute the Windows CE source code, is seen as an effort by the Redmond, Wash., software giant to make its code more accessible to developers, la Linux.

"This represents a major perception change in terms of the way programmers will view Microsoft and Windows CE," said Steve Maillet, chief executive officer and chief software architect for Embedded Fusion (Portland, Maine), a systems integrator that employs Windows CE.

Microsoft's move comes on the heels of embedded-software leader Wind River Systems Inc.'s rollout last week of its Workbench 2.0 integrated development environment, which allows developers to build embedded applications atop both Linux and its own VxWorks operating system.

The moves serve as the latest visible signal that the embedded industry's major players are acknowledging the real value of the open-source Linux operating system, and the competitive threat that it poses.

"The pervasive influence of open-source [software] is permeating the entire embedded industry," said Chris Lanfear, analyst for Venture Development Corp. (Natick, Mass.). "It's manifesting itself in different ways at Wind River and Microsoft, but it's clear that it's affecting the way both companies compete."

Perception issue

To be sure, Microsoft and Wind River framed their business moves as broader and more significant than a knee-jerk reaction to Linux. Linux's popularity, the companies maintained, is itself a reaction to the forces that have shaken the embedded industry to its foundations over the past three years. Among those are the ever-increasing complexity of application software, the intense pressure on OEMs to reduce lead times and the recessionary push on all players to cut costs.

"When you put those three dynamics together, it changes everything," noted John Bruggeman, senior vice president of worldwide marketing for Wind River (Alameda, Calif.).

Indeed, industry observers believe those forces are largely responsible for the rise of embedded Linux in the first place.

Linux was seen as an elixir because it offered developers an inexpensive means to deal with the new complexities of the marketplace. As a result, many programmers have been vocal in their support of Linux, not only because of its cost (or lack thereof), but because it gave them access to, and control over, the operating system software kernel.

Analysts believe that loyalty among developers is at least one of the reasons behind Microsoft's commercial-derivatives program.

The program for the first time enables licensees of Windows CE to modify and redistribute changes they make to 2.5 million lines of shared source code in version 5.0. In the past, such freedoms were extended to a handful of premium licensees, but the new program will offer it to all embedded customers.

Furthermore, the company last week took pains to note that the so-called "derivatives" don't have to be shared with Microsoft or anyone else.

That, Microsoft executives say, gives Windows CE a leg up on Linux. Operating under the auspices of the general public license, Linux obliges users to make kernel modifications available to the public as a whole and, by extension, to competitors in the industry.

"OEMs have told us that if they are going to spend precious time and resources making modifications, they don't want their advantages made available to other customers," said John Starkweather, senior product manager for Microsoft's Mobile and Embedded Devices Division.

Starkweather claims that the derivatives program actually encourages developers to innovate, not only because it gives them access to the source code, but because it does not call on them to share their changes.

Device builders and system integrators say the advantages may be more perception than reality, but they added that perception is important in the minds and hearts of developers.

"All programmers think they need to make changes, but when you come right down to it, most don't," said Maillet of Embedded Fusion. "But a lot of them won't even touch Windows CE because Microsoft hasn't let them make changes. That's always been a big criticism of Microsoft. That's why this [announcement] will ease their minds."

"This is only going to appeal to me in special cases," said Heinrich Munz, a strategic-product manager for Kuka Roboter (Augsburg, Germany), a maker of industrial robots that employs Windows CE in some products. "But I like to know it's there."

OS agnostics

Industry analysts said last week that the latest Microsoft effort will serve as one more piece of ammunition in the battle against roll-your-own operating systems.

"Linux changed the embedded road map because it opened people's minds to using a product that was prepackaged," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst of The Enderle Group (San Jose, Calif.).

"Now, the fact that they no longer have to share their intellectual property is going to be a big plus for those who had already opened their minds to Linux," he said.

Wind River, which is likewise targeting the roll-your-own crowd, is also changing tack in an appeal to the notoriously skeptical world of programmers. In February, the company announced it was teaming with Red Hat Inc. (Raleigh, N.C.) in an effort to develop a Linux-based embedded-software platform by 2005. Last week, it cemented its commitment to Linux by shipping Workbench 2.0, an integrated development environment based on Eclipse, an open-source application development framework that allows solution providers to add their own plug-in modules. The IDE, which is consistent with the company's new OS-agnostic approach, supports multiple operating systems, processors, languages and target environments.

'Postrecessionary behavior'

The new approach has been ripped by competitors, one of which compared the Red Hat-Wind River team to "two drowning men trying to save each other," especially given Wind River's longstanding criticism of Linux. Industry analysts, however, have generally supported the move, saying it was necessary in today's intensely competitive $762 million embedded-OS and tools market.

"It was clear that when the market started to come back, customers weren't coming back only to buy new Tornado licenses and VxWorks run-times," said Venture Development analyst Lanfear, referring to Wind River's proprietary offerings. A lot of them had migrated over to Linux for their telco infrastructure devices. It's a market-driven, postrecessionary behavior that has forced these companies to step up and compete very hard for a market that is still not substantial enough to carry all the vendors in it."

Wind River, however, only partially endorses such viewpoints.

The longtime embedded-software leader believes that the $762 million market figure may only be the tip of a much larger potential market. Citing the fact that typical embedded applications have grown from 100,000 to a million lines of code in the past two years, and that OEM lead times have dropped to as little as six months, the company's executives say they foresee a vast, untapped market among developers who have long refused to buy commercial operating systems and tools.

"Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the market is made up of in-house developers writing their own infrastructure for their applications," said Bruggeman of Wind River. "But developers don't have time to do that anymore. The costs are too prohibitive."

Bruggeman said Wind River believes the embedded pie could balloon to anywhere from $3 billion to $20 billion annually as these in-house groups look to commercial products. In that market figure, the company also includes other components, such as middleware, services and new layers of applications that lie somewhere between the OS and the end application.

Bruggeman added that end customers will benefit by having access to a tool set that enables them to use competing operating systems and software on separate projects, or even within the same project. Competition is now forcing software vendors to make such products available, he said.

"The end-customer market is changing dramatically," Bruggeman said. "We are being driven to embrace change because our customers are demanding it."