A real embedded OS or just regular Windows in a corset?

16 April 2008

Hold the front page. Major news from the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose. It's a classic piece of deckchair rearrangement. And it's one that makes you wonder about the marketing acumen of a company that's supposed to be a lot better at it than its competitors.

Basically, the company couldn't give a better rod to companies such as Montavista and Wind River to beat it with than this one. The 'news' is that Microsoft is, once again, rebranding its embedded operating systems. The plural in the last sentence is a little misleading as Microsoft only really has one embedded operating system that was designed for the job. The other one is a 'componentised' version of XP that won't bitch and whine if you haven't plugged in a keyboard when it boots.

However, the XP you can put on a diet is now, apparently the 'standard' embedded operating system. Windows CE, which is a different piece of software altogether and was built more like a classic real-time operating system is now the 'compact' version. And there will be an 'enterprise' version which seems indistinguishable from regular Windows XP or Vista other than it will get some sort of extra embedded mojo over time, according to the company.

Now, you could argue that, with Linux making bigger and bigger inroads into the embedded business, it makes sense for Microsoft to focus on the larger OS. However, the Linux kernel has gradually been acquiring bits of technology that are useful for real-time work. To run Windows Embedded Standard in a real-time environment, you need to use some form of virtualisation. So, what tends to happen is that people use Windows XP for the pretty user interface part and something else for the real-time part. It works. But communications between the two parts is not quite as straightforward as doing everything on one OS.

Also, note the language used in the release about the next generation of software:

"The first product release under the new naming strategy will be Windows Embedded Standard, the next generation of Windows XP Embedded, and will be launched simultaneously at Tech•Ed North America and through a global webcast event on June 3. All presently available Windows Embedded products will be marketed under their current names until their next scheduled product release..."

The next generation of XP? Hmm, doesn't sound like Vista is going to go on the embedded diet anytime soon, which makes you wonder about the near-term prospects of a chopped-down Vista running on a mobile device.