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Microsoft gets deeper into gizmos

The software giant talks up plans for embedded devices ranging from factory robots to slot machines.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Microsoft's roadmap to the future includes side trips into casino gambling and sewing-machine design.

A high-tech sewing machine Microsoft's Windows CE.Net operating system powers and modern slot machines that run a slimmed-down version of Windows XP were among the products Microsoft cited during a presentation Friday on the its plans for embedded devices--limited-function computing gadgets that range from factory robots to MP3 players.

Scott Horn, director of marketing for Microsoft's embedded group, said during a speech at the company's Silicon Valley campus that the category represents a big and largely untapped market for Microsoft.


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Device makers have traditionally taken it upon themselves to write the software for their gadgets, an approach that has become increasingly untenable with the growing complexity of devices and pressure to get products on the market quickly. Microsoft's approach--a standard package of software components from which device makers can pick and choose to suit their needs--lets hardware makers forget about the plumbing and focus on the details that really matter to consumers, Horn said.

"Customers don't buy an MP3 player or a factory-floor control module based on how good the networking stack is--they just expect that stuff to work," he said. "We're seeing that happen across a broad range of industries, where the embedded device manufacturer says, 'I don't want to do that myself. I'd rather use off-the-shelf software and focus on the stuff that really differentiates our product.' "

Microsoft's key competition for embedded operating systems is the open-source Linux OS, as used by embedded software specialists such as MontaVista Software and Wind River. Horn said the Microsoft-Linux battle--a growing factor in the PC world--is different in the embedded market for several reasons.

For one thing, Microsoft has a more flexible approach to allowing access to the source code behind its embedded operating system than it does with its full-fledged operating system. Several different license plans offer customers free access to the source code and allow them to customize it as well as distribute their modifications noncommercially.

Horn said a more liberal approach to source code works in the embedded market, because device manufacturers get to limit the software with which their gadgets have to work. "There isn't that need for broad application compatibility," he said.

Horn added that the embedded division is working on one of Microsoft's biggest bugbears of late: security. But he added that it's not as big an issue for the division, because embedded devices provide a much smaller door for hackers to enter.

"The first thing to realize is that because you're assembling components instead of having a whole operating system, the surface area that's exposed is a lot less," he said.