Windows XP joins embedded systems battle
By Matt Berger
(IDG) -- Although Microsoft has kept alternative operating system makers at bay on the desktop, it is an underdog in the battle over the operating systems in non-PC computing devices.
On Wednesday, the software maker will beef up its arsenal, releasing at its Embedded Developers Conference in Las Vegas a version of its Windows XP operating system that has been retooled to run inside embedded devices.
Chipmakers predict that microprocessors will soon creep into nearly every appliance, from refrigerators to car dashboards, and almost all of those chips will have an embedded operating system. But while cell phones get smarter and computers get thinner, Windows has found itself a small player in a growing industry. Users of everything from handheld computers to small communication devices are finding themselves turning to operating systems other than Windows.
Devices running the Linux operating system tend to cost less, analysts say, because the open-source operating system is distributed free of royalties. It also comes with a large pool of open-source developers that some programmers say comes in handy when developing with and debugging the operating system.
Other options, such as proprietary systems developed by Wind River Systems, are widely used because they are considered "hard real-time" systems, operating systems that are fault tolerant and can process commands immediately. For example, a medical device requires a hard real-time system because it must be highly reliable and fast.
"Reliability becomes a really big issue in many cases," said Daya Nadamuni, an embedded systems analyst at Gartner's Dataquest unit. "In certain systems, you could not afford to have a soft real-time operating system; you could not afford to have an operating system that crashes, because obviously that would be life threatening."
Neither Windows nor Linux can be used for those applications because they are not fast or reliable enough, Nadamuni said.
Microsoft plans to release its first real-time operating system, Windows CE .Net, some time next month. But some competitors say it lacks the speed necessary to run critical computing devices such as medical equipment.
Where Microsoft is seen to have an advantage over its competitors is in the development space. Programmers can use Microsoft's popular Visual Studio.Net software suite to build applications for embedded Windows systems, according to Megan Kidd, a product manager at Microsoft's embedded group.
"It's all a question of familiarity with the developer environment," Nadamuni said. "Users need to make sure there is a good tool chain to support the system."
Currently, about 40 percent of the embedded operating systems used in devices are custom-designed by the hardware makers, according to research from Dataquest. Consumer electronics makers such as Sony and Nintendo of America have built custom systems. But with new offerings from Microsoft as well as other competing software, many hardware makers are turning to off-the-shelf operating systems rather than employing an army of programmers to build one from scratch.
After custom-built systems, 18-year-old Wind River Systems holds the largest share of the market. Its embedded operating system and developer tools are used in 31 percent of the world's embedded systems, running everything from industrial machinery to SonicBlue's newest Replay TV digital video recorder. They are popular due to its long history in the market and because it offers developers technical support and familiar tools.
"We're all stealing market share from in-house designers," said Greg Rose, director of product marketing for embedded systems maker LynuxWorks, which produces three embedded operating systems, two based on Linux and a proprietary one that borrows from the Unix operating system.
Historically, most of the deals LynuxWorks has signed with hardware makers are for its Unix-based embedded system. Xerox uses the software in some of its network-connected copiers, as does Hewlett-Packard in its line of LaserJet printers. The company hasn't signed any major customers to its Linux software as it lacks the speed and reliability of the proprietary software.
"Linux wasn't the mover back then that it is now," Rose said, noting that hardware makers such as Xerox and HP have not looked to Linux yet. "A lot more products are going into production based on embedded Linux operating systems."
LynuxWorks in mid-November unveiled Version 4.0 of its BlueCat open-source embedded operating system, based on Version 2.4 of the Linux kernel. Another company offering Linux embedded operating systems is Lineo, which outfits devices such as network routers, handheld computers, and other special-purpose computing equipment. Red Hat also recently released a toolkit for building embedded operating systems based on Version 7.2 of Red Hat Linux.
Microsoft said embedded XP's biggest competitors are operating systems built in-house. In addition to its newest software, the company currently ships two embedded operating systems: Windows NT embedded and Windows CE 3.0, the foundation of the software that runs the Pocket PC.
Windows XP embedded is seen by the software maker as a good option for users who want the same functionality as in the desktop version, because it includes several hooks to Microsoft's .Net initiative, such as the Passport authentication system and Windows Messenger technology. Devices that run XP embedded will closely interoperate with other .Net software, including server products and Windows PCs, Kidd said.
Windows CE .Net is also pegged as a viable competitor to Unix and Linux systems in noncritical devices such as handheld computers. As with the open-source model, Microsoft gave chipmakers the source code for the operating system, formerly known as "Talisker," in order to gather recommendations and changes in preparation of its release.
In the end, which operating system is embedded into chips for these single-purpose devices is not very important to the end-user, Nadamuni said. What is important is that it is able to process information fast enough, and comes with adequate developer support to provide such things as bug fixes and customer service.
"All you care about is that the device works and it works well enough that you can go about your daily work," she said. "If you have problems in terms of politics -- as for what company you want to work with -- that's a different issue.
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