Microsoft Windows CE, the giant's shrunk-down operating system for handheld devices, is about to expand into a wide range of markets.
At its Windows CE Developers' Conference in San Jose last week, Microsoft outlined the forthcoming Windows CE 2.1 and announced plans to add real-time capabilities to the operating system. Meanwhile, hardware vendors and software developers are increasing their support for CE.
Increasingly, Microsoft is pushing Windows CE as the operating system of choice for all non-PC devices - including set-top boxes, Windows-based terminals and industrial robots.
At this year's developers' conference, Microsoft's main focus was on the embedded market. As had been rumoured in the past week, Microsoft made a commitment to add real-time capabilities to the operating system, making it more suitable for applications such as robotics, test and measurement equipment and programmable logic controllers.
Microsoft promised that CE would offer better response times (less than 50 microsecond thread latency) and more priority levels.
A beta version of Windows CE, sporting these enhancements, is expected by the first quarter of 1999, with a final release planned in the second quarter - probably in Windows CE 3.
An intermediate release of the operating system, CE 2.1, is being prepared for release this summer. Though it does not yet offer real-time enhancements, it is geared towards embedded applications. In fact, Microsoft is suggesting the release will mainly be of interest to OEMs, and unlikely to be available as an upgrade to current users of CE handheld PCs. These CE 2 users will probably have to wait for release 3.
Windows CE 2.1 offers application programming interfaces that allow developers to modify the graphical interface and the file system, and optimise it for certain applications. It also offers support for Cryptography API (CAPI) 1.
It will run on additional processors, including the ARM and StrongARM chip architectures. Windows CE runs on a range of processors from five platforms - Intel x86 compatibles, PowerPC, ARM, Mips and Hitachi SH.
One feature of 2.1, the support for ActiveX Data Objects (ADO), is available for download and will work with Windows CE 2. It offers better data exchange with desktop PCs and allows querying of a Windows CE database using SQL.
With its push into embedded markets, Microsoft is challenging both traditional embedded OSs and Sun's Java. Sun recently announced Personal Java and Embedded Java, special slimline versions of its software environment for these markets.
Tony Barbagallo, Microsoft director of Windows CE operating system and tools marketing, said he did not see Java competing as an environment for embedded applications. 'I can't twiddle bits in Java,' he said. 'Java as a language has a long way to go for the embedded market. C and C++ are going to dominate for some time.'
Meanwhile, CE is appearing in different consumer devices. Earlier this year, Microsoft announced the AutoPC and PalmPC form factors. Whereas the PalmPC merely imitates the format of the successful 3Com Palm Pilot, the AutoPC - an on-board computer for cars - expands into a new market.
The first systems based on these specifications are about to ship within the next months. Casio's Cassiopeia E-10 Palm PC will be launched in the first week of May and will be priced just under $400.
Everex will offer three configurations of its Palm PC, expected to be in stores by the end of April, at prices ranging from $329 for a basic model with 4Mb of Ram to $499 for a model with 8Mb of Ram and a 33.6Kbps modem.
As for the AutoPC, various models were demonstrated at the conference.
The first shipments are expected this summer.
Windows CE will also become the operating system of choice for accessing Windows applications from thin clients. Several vendors, including NCD and Boundless Technologies, have demonstrated Windows-based terminals running CE and accessing the beta version of Windows terminal server.
CE will also be used in a range of devices for the home market. Microsoft said it would reveal its plans for this market within the next three months.
For the future, Microsoft is promising to add to the limited multimedia support in Windows CE. It will add a version of DirectX for the platform.
Last month, Microsoft announced it was licensing a Java virtual machine for embedded systems, being developed by Hewlett Packard as a rival to Sun's work. However, the company will first launch a virtual machine based on Sun's specifications. This will ship in May and will be replaced by the HP version towards the end of the year.
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