Build Now or Wait for Windows 8?
Microsoft Riding Windows Embedded to Big Data Payoff
If information is power, then Microsoft is looking at its Windows Embedded group to play a key role in making the software giant a lot more powerful as the unit lays the foundation for a new world of intelligent systems.
Microsoft is looking to be a major player in the new world of the Internet of things. These "things" include all kinds of embedded systems and devices instrumented with sensors that are constantly drawing data from a variety of inputs. With Windows Embedded leading the way as the operating system for these devices, Microsoft plans to get a chunk of the opportunity afforded by the data explosion from the world of devices. Not only is Microsoft planning to help enterprises retrieve data, but also to analyze it, put it in the cloud, store it and monetize it.
Indeed, Microsoft's Windows Embedded business has been laying the foundation for these intelligent systems that can extend enterprise software and cloud services out to everyday devices such as point of service (POS) terminals, in-car infotainment, medical equipment and even bar-top game machines.
According to Windows Embedded General Manager Kevin Dallas, like so many other transformations in the technology world, the move toward intelligent systems is all about information.
"Data has become the new currency," Dallas told eWEEK.
"With today's pervasive network connectivity, the emergence of cloud services and low-cost yet high-powered microchips, traditional embedded devices can now connect and participate as part of a broader IT infrastructure and exchange real-time data all the way to the customer's fingertips," Dallas said in a statement. "Intelligent systems offer endless possibilities for organizations to collect and act on information in real time, from understanding customer buying habits to tracking product shipments around the globe."
With so much potential, the opportunity for developers is a big one. According to analyst firm IDC, the market for intelligent systems will grow substantially in the next few years, from 800 million units today to more than 2.3 billion by 2015. Shipments of embedded devices already exceed cell phones and PCs, and IDC predicts the market for intelligent systems will soon represent a $520 billion industry.
"Advances in the technology for devices, natural user interfaces and cloud are taking us to an era where our customers are looking at these devices as data collection points," Dallas told eWEEK.
That is causing Microsoft's role to change from just providing operating systems for devices to providing software and services for intelligent systems, as well as server and cloud software and analytics solutions.
"Once that data is generated and captured, it becomes a currency of its own," Dallas said in a statement. "Data and insights are the fundamental benefits that organizations can realize from an intelligent system, and whether it's in science, medicine or commerce, we're only beginning to see what people can do with this technology."
Two Pillars for Innovation
Dallas says there are two primary pillars for developers and organizations to innovate with intelligent systems-the ability of the system to gather and harness data in new ways and delivering an immersive new experience for end users, customers and enterprise workforces alike.
Both have factored heavily into Microsoft's road map for the Windows Embedded platform, with a blend of technologies to connect devices seamlessly across an organization, manage those devices easily on the IT side, and also allow for customization and differentiation with a new user interface and features for touch, gesture and speech control.
"A lot of our customers are asking about Kinect, for example, in the medical industry, the banking industry," Dallas said in a statement. "'How can I bring that kind of natural experience to my industry?' This is an exciting opportunity, and it's part of what I love about what we're doing to help deliver the tools for innovation with Windows Embedded platforms. We'll make it possible, and let our partners and developers make it happen. The only thing missing is your imagination."
Moreover, Dallas said extending intelligence from a device into enterprise software also requires tight integration with the back-end infrastructure. To facilitate that, Windows Embedded is focused on key areas of the operating system, all the way down to the kernel itself, improving the file system to handle the data generated by an array of devices. The team is also working closely with Windows Azure to ensure customers can seamlessly include cloud computing in their intelligent systems.
"What sits on top of this, across the device and your cloud architecture, is Visual Studio," Dallas said. "Visual Studio allows you to create a distributed application that works seamlessly across your intelligent system. We are planning to support all of the latest Microsoft tools and frameworks, so developers have one trusted platform to build upon, from the device to the cloud."
Although the Windows Embedded team has been quiet about its road map for about 18 months, the unit has not been sitting on its laurels. Dallas laid out details about how the company will deliver on its vision for intelligent systems over the next year. The plan involves continued support for a variety of platforms, while also aligning tightly with the upcoming Windows 8 and the new experiences it will enable.
"Windows 8 represents the potential to reimagine not only the PC experience, but also the specialized device experience," Dallas said in a statement. "Our road map builds on Windows Embedded's history of aligning the platform with Windows to support an integrated experience across devices, phones, PCs and the cloud."
Dallas said Windows Embedded Enterprise v.Next, providing full Windows application compatibility and the power of Microsoft's premium operating systems on embedded devices, will be available for use in a number of different devices, such as ATMs and kiosks, one quarter after Windows 8 is generally available for PCs.
Meanwhile, Windows Embedded Standard v.Next, which will deliver the power, familiarity and reliability of the Windows operating system in a highly customizable and componentized form, will undergo a community technology preview (CTP) for developers during the first quarter of 2012. General availability of Windows Embedded Standard v.Next will occur three quarters after Windows 8 is generally available for PCs. Microsoft is not disclosing specific dates for the Windows 8 release schedule at this time.
Dallas also confirmed that Microsoft updated Windows Embedded Compact 7, the current generation of the Windows Embedded CE platform, in October 2011. And Windows Embedded Compact v.Next will follow in the second half of 2012, introducing support for Visual Studio 2010.
Windows Embedded Standard v.Next will support the ARM architecture, and Windows Embedded Compact will continue to provide a proven, real-time operating system and a full tools suite for a streamlined development experience on small-footprint, specialized devices. Windows Embedded Standard v.Next will deliver technologies for customized, rich user interfaces; enhanced always-on connectivity; and all of the management and security functionality provided by Windows 8.
"Windows Embedded Compact and Windows Embedded Standard represent Microsoft's platforms for intelligent systems." Dallas said in a statement. "We need Windows Embedded Standard v.Next to take the lead around application-rich devices, and Windows Embedded Compact v.Next to take the lead around real-time, small form-factor devices. Both are critical to the success of our partners and enterprise customers building intelligent systems."
Build Now or Wait for Windows 8?
For partners and enterprises on the fence about whether to build now or wait for Windows 8, Dallas said they should build now.
"Intelligent systems are here today," Dallas said in a statement. "They exist all around us. And now you can build amazing intelligent systems today on the Windows Embedded platforms, knowing you'll have a direct path to upgrade and enhance those systems as Windows 8 rolls out."
Moving forward, enterprises can capture from devices data such as information about end-user collection practices or real-time information for connected cars, Dallas said.
Microsoft is supplying the capability for customers to tap into Big Data. Dallas said the company's Server and Tools unit has created a new service that is part of Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2. Known as StreamInsight, it enables companies to monitor multiple data streams and analyze the data in real time. Long term, the company envisions businesses having a wide variety of specialized devices that are tied into the cloud as part of a broad intelligent system strategy, allowing them to leverage industry-specific services or data-analysis capabilities that provide greater business insight.
Windows Embedded has already made progress through the release last March of Windows Embedded Device Manager. Leveraging the power of Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager, it gives IT staffs the ability to control intelligent systems that are distributed across the company's IT network.
Over the course of the next 18 to 24 months, Microsoft will deliver a series of products and services that accrue to this goal. For example, the company is developing an advanced machine-to-machine (M2M) connection manager, code-named "Pontecchio," to streamline the way devices connect to network services in order to make the data streams more predictable and efficient. In addition, Microsoft is investing in security and identity management technology to ensure the data streams are capable of working seamlessly with on-premises, private and public cloud services. This will help make it easier for IT staffs to maintain the security of a network and its data.
"Separate from local analytics, on the back end there is a need for cloud analytics," Dallas said. "So we're working with the Azure team to ensure Windows Azure works with our intelligent systems."
Moreover, "If a customer wants to market the data they capture from their intelligent systems, we can provide a market through Azure Data Market," Dallas told eWEEK. "We want to provide a marketplace for data. The revolution that happened around phones and the Internet ... we see the same transformation happening around connected devices and intelligent systems. But it doesn't come together without a strong ecosystem."