Windows Embedded 8 Hits General Availability; Licensing Options Coming July

Two of Microsoft's Windows Embedded 8 operating system products were released on Wednesday, with a third expected to become generally available in April.

Windows Embedded 8 Standard and Windows Embedded Pro are available now to device manufacturers and end users. These new operating systems offer interface, security and management capabilities for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) building devices for industries such as retail, health care and manufacturing.

Windows Embedded 8 Industry, the successor product to Windows Embedded POSReady 7 for retail industries, will be available during "the week of April 1," according to Microsoft's announcement. No other embedded product details were disclosed, although Microsoft opened a Windows Embedded 8 launch site here. The company had disclosed its early Windows Embedded 8 roadmap, describing the family of products, back in November.

Enterprise Features Coming July 1
Microsoft's announcement hinted at options for OEMs to add enterprise functionality, starting in July. Essentially, OEMs will be able to add OS features through additional licensing agreements, according to David Wurster, Microsoft's senior product manager for Windows Embedded.

"Through our volume license channel on top of these Embedded 8 products, we're allowing the user to modify the functionality of the device," Wurster said in a phone interview. "In some ways, that will happen very similarly to what happens with Windows in that we have a dedicated version of Windows Embedded 8 Industry that will be available through volume licensing that is unique to that channel. That will be available July 1. But for products that are little more highly customized by the OEM -- they're built like on Windows Embedded 8 Standard -- we are enabling enterprise customers to activate enterprise features through volume licensing."

The AppLocker application lock-down feature and the application sideloading capability, which are familiar options in some editions of Windows 8, are examples of these kinds of enterprise features that OEMs will be able to add on July 1, Wurster explained.

Microsoft's embedded operating systems, while based on Windows 8, are designed for use with specialized devices, kiosks and electronic signs. Each OS has its nuances. The embedded versions have a lot of the functionality of their desktop OS cousins, but "not all of the functionality," according to Wurster. "We provide a subset of those [Windows 8] features," he explained.

Moreover, some of the embedded OSes are modular and let the OEM swap out features, while others are more fixed. There's also a middle ground.

"We would refer to [Windows Embedded 8] Standard as the product that's componentized and modular," Wurster said. "And that's the one where we provide the OEM with a great deal of flexibility as well as tools to create their own customized operating system image. We have something in the neighborhood of 150 modules that Windows is put into, and, with the OS development tools, they can go back and customize the image. They might leave out large pieces of the operating system that are not necessarily relevant to their scenario.... As you move to Windows Embedded 8 Pro, that's a full version of Windows 8 Pro. So, bit by bit, it's the exact same version that we provide on the PC channel that we are providing on the embedded channel for that full Windows experience.... Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is where [Windows Embedded 8] Industry product falls. It's probably a little closer to Pro in that it is designed similar to Windows in that it is a fixed-image configuration. What the means is if you are putting an Industry 8 image on a device from Partner A to Partner B to Partner C, the image is by and large going to be the same so that the end user can be confident that an application is going to run across each of those devices."

Microsoft adds additional functionality on top of Windows for its Windows Embedded 8 Standard and Windows Embedded 8 Industry products. The added functionality includes things such as lockdown capability, write filters, keyboard filters (to lock out CONTROL ALT DELETE combinations) and gesture filters, Wurster explained.

Intelligent Systems Vision
Microsoft's vision on the Windows Embedded side is all about enabling a world of "intelligent systems," where organizations can connect devices as part of a network and tap user experience data. The use of server systems and cloud systems is part of that picture, Wurster said. In addition, security with Windows 8 technology can be used to protect business-critical data. Management of edge devices is also a key piece. Microsoft has been aligning its Windows Embedded efforts, which are organized under its Server and Tools Division, with the Microsoft System Center management suite, particularly System Center 2012 Service Pack 1.

"One of the biggest changes we've made in Windows Embedded 8 Standard over previous versions is really a change around ensuring that these devices can be managed with System Center," Wurster said. "On the one hand, this has made the foundation a little more rich than in the past, but it was a necessary step to be sure these devices can be part of an intelligent system. So now, when you look at the Windows Embedded 8 devices and end customer, you know that no matter what OS version your device is built on, you're going to be able to manage it with System Center. You're going to be able to secure it with your enterprise IT assets, because of these changes we've made, particularly to the [Windows Embedded 8] Standard product."

This "Internet of things" vision really is happening, according to Chris Rommel, vice president of M2M embedded systems at VDC Research. He explained that as devices are becoming more connected, intelligent and sophisticated, it is playing into Microsoft's favor. However, things are bit in flux and OEMs may not yet need all of the capabilities that Microsoft offers.

"If you look at the broader embedded market, though, it's not necessarily binary about whether the system is intelligent or not," Rommel explained, in a phone call. "There are a lot of devices that are at different points along that evolutionary path. And not everyone needs all of those thingsā€¦. So if you look at all of those different things, Microsoft isn't a perfect fit, especially if you're talking about costs, but also just other considerations too."

One segment where there is such interest is among retailers, where they are working to do more to augment customer engagement. "Retailers are very interested in making their systems more intelligent," Rommel said.

Microsoft is battling Linux and other operating system alternatives in the embedded space. It has a good chunk of the market, according to Rommel. Moreover, it has "more revenue than anyone else."

"For a baseline in terms of the embedded ecosystem as we look at it, you're talking about ten billion devices, plus or minus," he said. "To put it in context, about two billion of those are using a commercial operating system that is not open source. There are commercial open source operating systems, like Linux, and, if you put Android in that camp, that share is approaching two billion as well. But there's still a lot of white space out there -- people using no operating system or in-house ones or just general public open source."

For certain types of devices, Microsoft is dominating the embedded OS space. According to Rommel, that market domination is "almost at the point of monopoly" for retail, point of sale, industrial automation and medical devices, where Microsoft holds "over 80 percent of the market."

Still, it's the evolution of dumber devices that is something that Microsoft needs to watch going forward, Rommel suggested. Microsoft is "selling a premium product in many respects," but there are competitors with alternatives out there that are "pretty good," he added. The Microsoft traditional business model has been challenged because of the royalties on Linux and Android, and that means that people are less willing to pay for an embedded OS, he added.


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