The third version of Windows CE has been enhanced to provide better real-time capabilities, enhanced multimedia capabilities, support for more languages, and increased "componentization," which means the operating system can be easily broken up and used in pieces by developers.
Windows CE is an embedded operating system, meaning it is generally invisible to the consumer, and it is designed to power so-called smart appliances, which include everything from handhelds to set-top boxes and gas pumps. The market for non-PC-connected products is expected to explode in the next few years with the advent of high-speed, or "broadband," home networks and improved wireless Internet connectivity.
In April at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHec), Microsoft announced the formation of an appliance group focused on developing embedded operating systems for these types of devices. Windows CE 3.0 is the first product to be released from the new division.
"This is the first major announcement following through on that discussion of strategy," said Bill Veghte, vice president of the division. "We think we've taken a significant step forward for developers to bring end-to-end solutions to the market."
Windows CE, which is also used in Microsoft's Pocket PC handheld device, has been slow to gain footing in the embedded market, which requires more stability and reliability than typical consumer devices or PCs. CE has been criticized for its instability and lack of true real-time capabilities, two areas Microsoft says have been improved with the third version.
"We've taken a very significant step forward in providing real-time support," which becomes necessary in medical equipment and other time-critical systems, Veghte said. "It is not the fastest real-time operating system in the marketplace, but it is good enough for 95 percent of the market."
Microsoft announced today that in addition to cutting the price of Windows CE, it is simplifying the pricing model to attract more developers. The software maker did not disclose licensing fees.
"We're simplifying so there is one pricing model for everything," Veghte said, declining to give specific numbers. He added, however, that some developers will see cost reductions of up to 50 percent. "We're not fans of communicating specific price numbers."
Microsoft is offering a free upgrade for users of its Platform Builder development tools, he added.
In the embedded operating system market, Microsoft competes with a variety of entrenched players, from Palm--which is licensing its operating system to companies such as Sony and Nokia--to real-time operating system makers such as WindRiver and makers of Linux-based software. In addition, many developers use operating systems developed in-house.
"Palm has certainly been successful in one device class: the knowledge worker PDA," Veghte said. "If you look at what we're announcing today, we have a much more comprehensive, easier-to-use solution."