Microsoft’s Windows 8 has been met with a lukewarm response. Unlike the iPad, their flagship ‘Surface’ product, while selling fairly okay, has not exactly been an ‘overnight success’. Aching to expand their market, Microsoft will be launching the next piece of the Windows 8 puzzle in the form of Windows Embedded 8, starting from March in next year.
Devices known as ‘embedded systems’ traditionally spanned across a wide range of industries and devices such as VOIP phones, DVD players, GPS receivers, and printers. However with ever-shrinking technology, many other innocuous devices have started to spread their silicon wings and join the technological march towards the ‘smart’ future.
With more and more devices becoming ‘embedded systems’ insomuch as they carry computer chips in some form, there is a growing demand in software to manage these machines. In the past, barebones versions of Linux have been the go-to choice for embedded operating systems, due to their low system requirements and easy customization. However, if Microsoft get their way, that is all about to change.
The expansion of more and more household objects into the digital realm has sparked interest in what is being dubbed the ‘Internet of things’, a network which connects all of the computerized items in your house together, providing their owner the ease of managing and searching for objects just as they would files on a computer. So where does Microsoft fit into all of this?
Well, there has been a steady decline in Desktop computer sales in the recent years, and Microsoft need to move fast to diversify unless they want to become a window-shaped fossil. One strategy which has been designed to save Microsoft is to jump on the tablet/smartphone craze, and Windows 8 is the first big step towards that. But this is just part of a larger overall plan, which aims to transform Microsoft from a software company to a ‘devices and services’ company. The folks over at MS have even gone so far as to release an ‘embedded roadmap’, most probably to show stock holders that they aren’t a lumbering dinosaur about to be obliterated by an incoming mobile meteor.
So this brings us back to the topic at hand –Windows Embedded 8. While many may not have heard of this specific form of Windows, it has actually been around for a while. Even the original Win3.x had an embedded version which ran on POS terminals. But the first real ‘Windows Embedded’ product was built in 1999 and called Windows NT Embedded. The Windows XP code was then used to build “XPembedded”. Following this came “Windows Embedded Compact”, which you may have heard being referred to by its previous name, “Windows CE”. This was less obscure a product than you may think, and was used in many a set-top box, but probably gained most wide recognition from its inclusion in Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast console. See, you have seen embedded products from Microsoft before!
In 2009, Windows XP Embedded was updated to from Windows Embedded Standard, which provided the full Win32 API, but unlike Windows CE which ran on a multitude of processors such as ARM, MIPS and SuperH, Windows Embedded Standard only runs on x86. The tradeoff is that it is fully compatible with ‘standard’ programs such as .NET Framework, IE7, Windows Media Player, Silverlight, and so on. At this point you’re probably thinking ‘wait a minute, what’s the point of having all that installed on your microwave?’ Well, apparently Microsoft thought of this too, and has allowed device makers to customize the system by removing parts they don’t need, while keeping the core functionality of the OS. This feature has been utilized (exploited?) by some clever folks in the past to produce live-cds of Windows such as BartPE.
Windows Embedded 8 Standard is also a modularized version of Windows, which allows Linux-like customization for device manufactures who don’t need all the bells and whistles of a full fledged OS just for a toaster oven. However that’s not to say that the latest version won’t benefit from Windows 8’s new features, and the new touch and gesture-based interface will be available from the comfort of your own waffle iron in the near future.
Now you can crash Internet Explorer and your brand new Prius all at the same time. Pretty cool, huh?
The new edition to the Windows Embedded family will initially come in two flavors – Standard and Pro. Windows Embedded 8 Pro is the successor to the ‘Windows Embedded Enterprise’ SKU, and is basically a full version of desktop Windows 8 which has been repackaged to run on embedded systems. Later in the year, Microsoft will release Windows Embedded 8 Industry, which is aimed at manufacturing and healthcare (Windows on your pacemaker.. eep!). After that will come Windows Embedded 8 Handheld, which assumedly is for handheld devices, then Windows Embedded 8 Automotive, which will run on your in-car systems, if you…really want that…