NEW ORLEANS In one stroke, Microsoft Corp. this week reorganized its embedded-systems group and announced its most ambitious embedded effort to date: Windows CE 3.0. Analysts and competitors called the move a step in the right direction in a market where the company is still trying to gain a toehold. The initiative also may plant significant seeds for the company's future in what Microsoft, not surprisingly, is calling the "PC-Plus" era.
"We have the richest technology platform in the industry and the biggest R&D investment for the embedded marketplace," said Bill Veghte, vice president for the company's newly minted embedded and appliance platform group. "The key is giving our customers the flexibility to take what they need, whether for a games platform or a retail terminal."
Veghte, the former lieutenant in the Windows hardware group, takes charge of both the Windows CE and Embedded Windows design groups. He said his goal is embedded platforms that can be ordered in any custom configuration or level of integration. He also vowed to deliver an embedded version of any major Windows release within 90 days of the commercial release, starting with Whistler, a merged Windows NT-Windows 98 OS set for a 2001 launch.
The crown jewel in Microsoft's embedded push is Windows CE 3.0, which will ship in June with enhanced real-time features, a full-blown Internet Explorer 4.0 browser and support for Microsoft's DirectX multimedia application programming interfaces, Universal Serial Bus, smart cards, Simple Network Management Protocol and an HTTP server.
The upgraded browser will support HTML 4.0 forms, frames and floating frames, and, with a few limitations, Cascading Style sheets and Dynamic HTML. However, the enhanced browser requires about 3 Mbytes on an X86 PC, compared with 1.3 Mbytes for the current Pocket Internet Explorer. On other, less-code-dense RISC processors, the footprint will be even larger.
In real-time, CE 3.0 will support 256 priority levels, nested interrupts and a tweaked kernel with significantly reduced interrupt service routing (ISR) and interrupt service thread (IST) latencies. The latter will vary based on processor and implementation. As a benchmark, Microsoft said a system using a 166-MHz Pentium could expect ISRs of 10 microseconds and ISTs of 100 s.
Not mentioned was preemptive latency, the key time required for context switching between program threads.
"A coherent strategy"
Analysts agreed last week that the moves amount to an important step forward for Microsoft. "It's long overdue," said Paul Zorfass, a senior analyst for International Data Corp./FTI. "They haven't had the concerted and focused effort they needed to be successful. And this will be a concerted and focused effort."
"For the first time, Microsoft seems to have a coherent strategy on how to position Embedded NT and CE," concurred Daya Nadamuni, an industry analyst at Dataquest Inc. (San Jose, Calif.).
Zorfass described Microsoft's previous products as "learning efforts." Micro-
soft has failed to capture the embedded market the way it had hoped. Zorfass believes that's because the company was too wrapped up in PC- and service-oriented models, and failed to fully understand the markets it was entering. "It took more than they realized to succeed in diverse and heterogeneous marketplaces," he said.
Even competitors had mild praise for the Windows giant. "They are making fairly natural but modest steps toward serving this industry," said John Fogelin, vice president of the platform group at Wind River Systems Inc. (Alameda, Calif.), Microsoft's biggest embedded competitor.
But Microsoft has a long road ahead. In a survey last year of 5,000 EE Times readers who were embedded-systems developers, Windows CE fell dead last in a group of 12 embedded OSes in current use, with only a couple of percentage points of market share. Wind River's VxWorks was the leading commercial product with about 25 percent of the market, although in-house OSes took the majority at about 58 percent.
CE's poor performance followed two years of big promises from ex-CE czar Craig Mundie, former boss of Microsoft's consumer group. Under Mundie's leadership, Microsoft lost the battle of handhelds to the Palm Pilot. And despite licensing CE to several top Japanese conglomerates, promises of CE-powered set-top boxes, DVD players and games machines failed to pan out. The Sega Dreamcast game console, CE's biggest design win, ultimately shipped without using the OS in any significant way.
The Pocket PC, Microsoft's latest CE incarnation for handhelds, "has been the last bastion of Windows CE," said Richard Doherty, founder of consulting firm Envisioneering Inc. (Seaford, N.Y.). "Now it looks like Microsoft will be building a world of embedded solutions one partner at a time."
Microsoft's keenest competition comes from Wind River, which bulked up for an embedded battle late last year with the acquisition of Integrated Systems Inc. The company laid out its own postmerger reorganization at the Embedded Systems Conference in March, setting up three application-specific groups for networking, consumer and the traditional transportation, defense and industrial markets.
"We see a trend toward more specialization that requires core expertise in specific markets," said Fogelin of Wind River, which employs some 500 field support personnel, against 70 dedicated salespeople in Microsoft's new embedded group.
Fogelin believes Microsoft's plans to field a full-blown PC browser would not suit information appliances as much as Wind River's support for Web software tuned for the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). "Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 doesn't give you jack in terms of an efficient WAP browser," Fogelin said. "It's not about the desktop experience, but about content that will morph to new kinds of devices."
Dataquest's Nadamuni said Microsoft could see success in the industrial automation realm, where "the barriers to entry are lower than they are
in consumer electronics."
For years, many experts have believed that the industrial market was on the verge of switching from programmable logic control (which uses no operating system) to PC control, and Microsoft's announcement may provide a nudge in that direction.
Success in that arena will depend on the continued development of advanced factory floor machinery, such as five-axis milling machines, computer-driven numerically controlled lathes and advanced robotic assembly systems. Unlike traditional factory floor systems, which have used 4- and 8-bit technology, such machines would need 32-bit operating systems.
Down the road, the new group could help Microsoft find its way in the new world of information appliances, which it will also serve. Veghte said the company believes that PCs and servers are rapidly morphing into single-purpose appliances that are easy to use and install. "The marketplace is fundamentally changing," said Veghte.
Bernard Cole and Junko Yoshida contributed to this report.