Has Microsoft forgotten about embedded?

March 11, 2016 OpenSystems Media

It’s fair to say that nowadays, what most consider to be “embedded” has shifted. Previously synonymous with SBCs, HMIs, and small form factor industrial PCs, the shift in interpretation has moved from board-level product (and associated complete solutions) closer to the component level. IoT endpoint devices using few but highly advanced components are what embedded describes now, for many.

Whilst the new embedded is undergoing exponential growth, the market for what we perhaps now must call “industrial embedded” remains vast. Thus, I was surprised to observe that with its introduction of Windows 10, Microsoft appears to have forgotten all about what was considered embedded yesterday.

The comprehensive marquee enterprise variant that’s rebadged across so many industries does and must remain. Gone are the componentized variants of now historical Windows enterprise editions, reflecting the ample cost-effective performance and storage availability, which renders stripping down that enterprise version a largely pointless exercise. In its place is an IoT version, designed for invariably headless IoT endpoint devices and gateways, evidence that Microsoft takes IoT as seriously as we all do.

The cessation of componentization purportedly renders deploying Windows 10 IoT enterprise into these single-purpose industrial embedded applications a doddle, removing the entire image development phase of yesteryear. Finally, Microsoft has recognized that many Windows functions aren’t used, whether they’re included or excluded in any image. Quite simply, as long as their application loads and functions as intended, system integrators are indifferent to what superfluous functions are or aren’t in that image; they care about reliability and deployment effort.

Reduced cost SKUs (license) designed to push Windows 10 into key expanding industry sectors were there at launch. The retail sector and thin clients benefit from nearly a 50 percent reduction versus the enterprise license, whilst tablets benefit from a massive 50-75 percent reduction. So, for our industrial embedded market, those deploying in single-use applications to SBCs, HMIs, and industrial PCs, which variant or version is intended for them? Er…none of them.

Well, that isn’t strictly true. The full-blown IoT enterprise version is what they are told they should be using, with license costs that eclipse previous Windows Embedded Standard versions to a staggering degree. The feedback I’m getting is this simply isn’t acceptable.

So what are the options? Android has been sticking its head around the door of these applications for some time, but as an inherently consumer OS that’s designed for mobile applications, to date it simply hasn’t gained the traction necessary for widespread deployment in our industry. Whilst Android is derived from Linux, there are also opportunities for more traditional commercial distributions of Linux to gain more ground than ever before, taking advantage of this vacuum.

The reality is that the deployment environment of these systems often feature a Windows backbone, so being forced to run essentially incompatible OSs side by side is not a jump many will want to make, unless they are pushed by untenable commercials. Unless they are happy to lose a serious chunk of licensing revenue, the answer for Microsoft is to introduce a reduced cost SKU for this subsector – arguably one with near-zero deployment support needs, thus essentially just clean profit. Question is, will they?

Rory Dear, European Editor/Technical Contributor
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