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By Jack Ganssle

A Cheaper CE Creates Competitive Challenges

Published 5/14/2003

In this month's print edition of Embedded Systems Programming I wrote an article designed to spark a flood of angry emails. I figured the title alone, "How Microsoft Saved the World", would ignite the anti-Microsoft crowd into a fury of flaming. Previous articles I've written about this company taught me that anytime I use the M word and don't immediately follow it with "sucks" or some other derogatory remark my in-box floods with profanity and (at last count) two death-threats (no kidding!). But it's fun to debate big issues with folks, and one of the biggest is the specter of Microsoft lurking over this industry. They've been flirting with embedded for years, but now seem to understand some of the issues better.

In the May issue I comment that, in my opinion, the folks in Redmond were powerfully influential in the success of the personal computer. Their products, though far from perfect, are good enough for most of us in their intended applications.

But in the embedded space I expressed doubts about their ability to thrive. Windows CE in all of its various incarnations does offer a GUI that has great appeal to most of our customers. But the product is too expensive for many low-cost apps. More problematic, till the company can prove that it's reliable most of us will consider it inappropriate for the high-rel computing environment of almost any embedded system. In our world, crashes are unacceptable. Even when the system is as un-safety-critical as a coke machine or a coffee maker. Customers should not have to reboot their appliances.

They can win trust by making the product DO-178B certified or perhaps by opening the source to the community. Minutes before we went to press the company announced that most of the source will indeed be made available, and their customers will be encouraged to make changes. They're still a long way from the GPL model. but this is a huge step for a company that traditionally protects the code like bankers guard their vaults. Maybe they really are serious about this market.

There's suddenly more: the May 12 issue of EE Times reports that CE's licensing fee will drop from the $12 region to $3. and even lower in large volumes. $3 is still an awful lot more than that charged by Jean LaBrosse for his uC/OS or by the GNU-ish community for ecos. but it's starting to approach a number that makes sense for many developers. With no up-front costs ($7k+++ for a number of commercial RTOSes), cash-starved companies may find that CE offers a lot of bang for the buck.

Of course, the $3 version is marketed somewhat like a browser or office suite. It's stripped of many features. A $15 "professional" edition (gag) includes all of the usual capabilities.

To add a little hot sauce to the mix, at the Embedded Systems Conference in April Nick Tredennick, industry gadfly but always a source of thoughtful analysis, predicted that in the future all embedded applications requiring a GUI will be x86 based, running CE. You could fairly see the steam rising from the collars of the RTOS folks in attendance. Nick feels that even the traditionally deeply embedded systems, if needing a GUI, will use multiple CPUs, one x86 machine providing the user interface, and the other running a more traditional RTOS.

Many years ago I predicted the CE would win in the GUI-enhanced embedded market. Its well-known API, promoted by the most successful marketing machine in the computer industry's history, is a force that will be hard to resist. In the intervening half-dozen years Microsoft has fumbled and stumbled. But maybe they're finally getting it right.