Oh, Microsoft... what haven't you done?

I was prepared to tell you good people all about the exciting things I spied at May’s Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose, California. I even had a list, topped with soft processors for FPGAs from Altera (FP32) and Xilinx (Zynq), cool AMD graphics accelerators (Fusion APU), rugged memory modules (SFF-SIG), and all of this followed by excerpts from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s on-stage chat with UBM’s Brian Fuller. On the latter: Woz implies that geeks are good.

But that all went out the window when I got home and my precious Core 2 Duo MacBook couldn’t render the HD video interviews I conducted at ESC. So I broke down and bought a Windows 7 Dell machine from Costco for a mere $650. Although it’s last year’s Nehalem Core i5 model, it puts my Mac to shame on CPU horsepower – and Windows 7 ain’t half bad, either. After a week reacquainting myself with Windows, I am very impressed. Gone are the glitches of XP SP3, and the UI is positively Apple-like in many subtle ways. But this got me thinking about the news from ESC that wasn’t news at all: Where was Microsoft? I didn’t see them, and the Conference book confirmed that they weren’t there like years past. Is Microsoft pulling away from embedded because, let’s face it, they’ve gained little traction in the consumer, military, medical, and overall embedded market? Look around your workspace right now. Besides the PC, do you see Microsoft running anywhere?

We define “embedded” loosely as anything that isn’t a PC or a server[1]. This includes game consoles, smartphones, PC/104 and VME boards, printers, Google TV, static analysis tools, FPGAs, avionics on military C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft, handheld doodads, POS terminals, and so on. Yet except for the vendors showcasing embedded systems replacing desktop PCs running some flavor of Windows, I just didn’t feel Microsoft’s presence at this year’s ESC. So I checked the OpenSystems Media news server for recent Microsoft PR to see if I’d missed something. Our database aggregates RSS feeds from six different online and print publications. Out of nearly 10,000 press releases from hundreds of companies, I didn’t find many noteworthy items from the folks in Redmond. A couple of .NET announcements, a few references to Windows 7, and server environments. There was something about Silverlight for Windows Embedded, having to do with streaming DMCA-controlled video content to things like Tablets. Success! This was bona fide “embedded” press release, even if it wasn’t quite the smoking gun I was looking for.

I was hoping to find product announcements from Microsoft or hardware vendors committing to using the latest flavors of Windows CE, Windows Phone 7, or something to do with making a notable dent in the embedded beachhead enjoyed by Linux, the RTOS vendors, or even Java of all things. Nada. So I loaded the big guns, and headed over to PR Newswire, one of the tech industry’s largest repositories of press releases. Searching the last 60 days I found 41 references to “Microsoft embedded,” but only a handful applied. Of these, I learned that Broadcom is working with Microsoft to make “wireless TV a reality,” that Kia is looking to do SYNC, FPGA dev platform provider BEECube is used by Microsoft, and that some guy from Microsoft Research was one of the ESC judges who helped select the best people and products at ESC Silicon Valley. On this last one, clearly Microsoft wasn’t absent from ESC per se, but their embedded strategy sure isn’t evident to me.

Finally, I bit the bullet and headed off to that black hole Library of Congress-style website known as Microsoft.com. LOTS of stuff there about embedded. Yet, scratching below the surface, I couldn’t discern how it’s much different than Microsoft’s previous products of Windows, Windows Embedded, Windows CE, and the phone OS du jour that some Finnish cell phone company just bet the farm on. Now it’s all called Windows 7, Windows Embedded Compact, Windows Embedded Compact 7, and Windows Phone 7. I’m not making this up, I swear it. Embedded Compact is the latest flavor of CE, while the “7” makes it the modularized version with low footprint due to mix-and-match add-ins. It’s all nicely described on myriad web pages, but nowhere could I easily find anything that made it seem easy. The underlying themes are: 1. Hey, this stuff for embedded is all based upon Windows 7 somehow (which, as I said above, is pretty impressive); and 2. Embedded serves as a bunch of endpoints to connect with things in the Internet Cloud.

I guess it all makes sense, since Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer decreed in March 2010 that “For the cloud, we’re all in.” He stated that with the company’s 40,000 people building software, 70 percent were doing something “exclusively for the cloud” – by 2011 it was expected to be 90 percent. Experts envision tens of billions of connected devices by 2015 (Intel, VDC, ARTEMIS). Given that fact, the Microsoft embedded website does list vertical markets such as Enterprise, POSReady, Server, Handheld, Thin Client, Automotive, and so on. Apparently “embedded” isn’t the goal, it’s a means to an end and I’m guessing that Microsoft’s value-add will be bits and pieces that facilitate management, connectivity, cross-platform exchange, and the ever-familiar Windows SDK environment. Guess they don’t really want to do the OS on an embedded thingy. They just want to help it connect to the Web.

Still, ya think they could send a message out to the 10,000 or so attendees of America’s biggest conference focusing on all things embedded? Maybe some attendees need to hear what Microsoft’s strategy is. Really, Redmond could’ve done so much more.

For more information, contact Chris A. Ciufo, Group Editorial Director at cciufo@opensystemsmedia.com.

[1] And automobiles, Ford’s SYNC by Microsoft notwithstanding.