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Windows CE faces embedded challenge

Microsoft's CE operating system must clear some hurdles in the market for consumer and industrial appliances, a new study finds.

Microsoft's Windows CE faces considerable hurdles in the operating system market for consumer and industrial appliances, a new study has found, but Microsoft says many of the findings of the study are already being addressed.

Co-sponsored by Microsoft, the new study covers the embedded operating system (OS) market, an increasingly important market as computing devices such as digital TV set-top boxes, dedicated home appliances, and industrial devices proliferate.

Unlike the desktop PC world, Microsoft is a challenger in the embedded operating system market. Moreover, the market is a different creature compared to the high-profile Windows-Intel personal computer OS market which Microsoft dominates: Embedded software is often invisible to the user and, as a result, is relegated to a lesser status.

Thus far, Windows CE has made its mark mostly in the handheld and set-top box areas, and is emerging as a player in point-of-sale and credit card systems and manufacturing equipment. Microsoft competes in these markets with WinRiver's VxWorks and Integrated Systems' pSOS.

But the absence of many of the factors that have led to Microsoft's overwhelming popularity in the desktop world will create obstacles for Microsoft in the embedded operating system market, according to the survey by market research firm Venture Development Corporation.

For one thing, Microsoft does not enjoy nearly the developer support it is used to in the PC world. The study found that only 4 percent of embedded developers surveyed cited extensive knowledge of the Win32 APIs.

"Not that many embedded developers are familiar with the APIs," said Pedro Zayas, market analyst for embedded systems at VDC. "There's a lot of skepticism among developers about Microsoft's ability to reduce the response time in Windows CE."

However, developers who write for the desktop version of Windows are already familiar with the APIs used in developing for Windows CE, according to Microsoft.

"Embedded systems developers are used to whatever they've done that's proprietary, but there aren't too many embedded developers out there," said Tony Barbagallo, group product manager for Windows CE. Embedded systems developers currently number about 250,000, compared to 4.5 million desktop developers, according to Barbagallo, and these developers "understand how to port Windows CE to their hardware."

Although Microsoft has benefited from the consistent Intel-based hardware platforms PC makers have adopted, industrial manufacturers and other embedded operating system developers favor more heterogeneous hardware, according to VDC's Zayas.

"In deeply embedded systems, such as anti-lock brake systems or data collection terminals or military applications, these environments do not require a tight integration between desktop computers and embedded devices," he said.

For its part, Microsoft says it is not trying to achieve the same dominance in the embedded market that it enjoys in the desktop world. "There's enough technical differences in this space that no one OS is going to have that kind of broad reach," said Barbagallo.

But Microsoft must address technical shortcomings present in the current version of Windows CE, such as poor real-time ability, both Zayas and Barbagallo say. "Windows 2.1 is not strictly ready for embedded development," Zayas said. Windows CE 3.0 does address some of these shortcomings, with improved real-time performance.

Microsoft agrees that Windows CE is not necessarily a good fit for every embedded market. "If you take the example of an antilock breaking system, they have 16-32K of memory to work with," Barbagallo said, noting that the smallest version of Windows CE takes up about 250K of memory. "Sheer simple physics says that we can't fit in that application, and we're not trying to--the power of our OS is not to be that small."