Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

Summary: Microsoft announced Windows Embedded Handheld on June 17, bringing the company's mobile OS count to six (or more) different offerings. How many is too many?


When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently criticized Google at the D8 conference for having two different mobile operating systems, it's surprising so few challenged the pot for calling the kettle black. Microsoft doesn't have just one or even two mobile operating system (OS) offerings. As of today, it has a half dozen, by my count.

Microsoft announced the newest addition to its mobile OS list on June 17. The newest family member, known as Windows Embedded Handheld, is powering the new Motorola’ES400 enterprise digital assistant (EDA), launched today in New York.

Windows Embedded Handheld, like most of Microsoft's mobile OSes (other than Windows 7), is built on top of the Windows Embedded Compact (formerly known as Windows Embedded CE) core. The first version of Windows Embedded Handheld, which is going to be shipping before the end of this year, is tailored for what are known as "enterprise handheld mobile devices" -- i.e., ruggedized computers that are for custom line-of-business applications, like bar-code scanning, RFID reading, etc. A second version of the Windows Embedded Handheld platform -- built on top of the Windows Embedded Compact 7 core -- is due out in the second half of 2011.

Gallery: Running on Windows Embedded

With today's announcement, Microsoft now has at least six different OS offerings for mobile phones and devices. It has two different phone operating systems -- Windows Mobile 6.x (the last of the line in the Windows Mobile OS family) and Windows Phone OS 7.0. (It has three if you count the Kin phone OS, which is a modified version of Windows Phone OS 7.0.)  It has the just-launched Windows Embedded Handheld OS. It has an OS for TVs, set-top boxes, kiosks and other embedded tasks, known as Windows Embedded Standard 7.  It has Windows 7, which it is positioning as its OS for tablets and netbooks. And, as company officials said last month at Computex, it has Windows Embedded Compact 7 (which isn't going to be released to manufacturing until Q4 2010) for PC makers who want to create slates and other consumer mobile devices that run on non-Intel processors and use less battery power.

Here's my best attempt to explain what's part of Microsoft's mobile OS six pack:

What's with the multiplying Microsoft mobile OS SKUs? Wouldn't just one or two choices result in less PC maker and customer confusion? On the mobile front, it seems the thinking in Redmond is that more specialization and more choices will give mobile device makers more options.

The place where Microsoft is consolidating its story is on the Windows Embedded Compact front. Windows Embedded Compact/Windows Embedded CE is the lowest level platform upon which Microsoft builds its phone and mobile device operating systems. Currently, the majority of the six different mobile OS offerings run a variety of different versions of Embedded Compact/Embedded CE. Microsoft is working to get more of its mobile OS platforms to run on top of the Windows Embedded Compact 7 core.

On the development tools front, Microsoft also is working to consolidate its offerings. In the second half of next year, when the Windows Embedded Handheld 7 platform ships, it will support the same set of development tools that Windows Phone 7 will be supporting: Visual Studio 2010, Silverlight and the XNA platform, according to Microsoft officials.

Why a dedicated ruggedized mobile OS?

Today's launch of Windows Embedded Handheld marks the debut of a new brand and new nomenclature for Microsoft in a market where it already plays. Microsoft already has a handful of OEMs, including Motorola, Honeywell and Intermec, who sell ruggedized mobile PCs and devices that run Windows CE and/or Windows Mobile.

Going forward, Microsoft won't be offering its partners the CE toolkit and/or Windows Mobile; instead, it will morph these things into a single OS known as Windows Embedded Handheld, explained David Wurster, Senior Product Manager with Microsoft's Windows Embedded business.

The first release of the Windows Embedded Handheld OS isn't going to include new features or technological changes. Instead, "it's more about aligning policies and support," Wurster said. It's a case of "driving confidence back into the (enterprise handheld device) ecosystem," he added.

The second iteration of the platform, Windows Embedded Handheld 7, will include new functionality as a result of it being built on top of the Windows Embedded Compact 7 core. This version, due in the second half of 2011, "will support richer experiences and richer applications," Wurster said. In addition to supporting a stylus for input, it also will support multi-touch, he said.

Microsoft set the stage for the launch of the Windows Embedded Handheld platform back in April of this year, when the company moved responsibilities for the platforms for ruggedized devices from its Mobile Communications Business to the Windows Embedded Business. At that time, the Softies said to expect the move to result in a "closer connection between the Windows Embedded CE and Windows Mobile product line." What about consumer handheld devices?

The new Embedded Handheld platform is not Microsoft's OS for slates or consumer mobile devices.

"If you want to look at creating a slate, or an ARM-based (mobile) platform, and you want to create your own solution, you could do that by building on Windows Embedded Compact 7," Wurster said. He added that the Embedded Compact 7 OS also is a better solution for GPS providers and certain industrial applications, but not for dedicated, line-of-business applications, like transportation and logistics, for example.

For those building consumer-facing platforms, Microsoft is providing tools with Embedded Compact 7 (a public technical preview version of which was released last month) for PC partners who want to build their own custom user interfaces. Silverlight for Windows Embedded is the primary creation tool for building a shell for these kinds of mobile devices, Wurster said.

Microsoft has begun telling its OEM partners if they are building small-screen consumer-focused devices that are primarily meant for content consumption, they should think about Windows Embedded Compact 7 as their primary Microsoft choice. If they want to build consumer mobile handhelds that are good for both consumption and creation of content, they should think Windows 7, and not Windows Embedded Compact 7, according to Microsoft. (Where does that leave HP, which was, as of January, planning to build a Windows 7 slate? In limbo.)

Because Windows Embedded Compact 7 isn't slated to be released to manufacturing until the fourth quarter of this year, that would seem to imply we won't see any slates based on that OS until next year. Microsoft management's insistence on getting its PC partners to go with Windows 7 instead of a lower-power, multi-platform offering like Embedded Compact, on these form factors is going to come back to bite the company (just like what happened with the iPhone), a number of company watchers say.

The one wildcard in all this is whether Microsoft is readying some kind of shell for Windows 7 -- and/or Windows Embedded Compact 7 -- which would make those platforms more attractive to PC makers and customers looking for touch-centric slates. If that's happening, no one at Microsoft is talking about it....

Topics: Mobility, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

    windows embedded standard 7 is not based on CE, it is the compoentized version of windows 7, like xp embedded, and embedded standard 2009
    • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

      Who cares! I think Mary Jo has got her point across, which is one reason as to why you replied. Ballmer is so worried about throwing his garbage over into another neighbor's backyard such as Google, who instead needs to worry about his own and clean it up. Does it really matter for the fact that they have 4 or 400? Microsoft states that they are giving consumer choice with their desktop version fiasco, instead they have seen a way to gather more money from upgrades. At least now they get money from the PC makers and the consumers that need an OS upgrade, instead of being able to deliver something comparable to the hardware. Microsoft will only deliver a software model that maintains or gains monetary momentum, period! Windows 7 was Vista SP3! Their Windows 7 version was forced upon them from real innovation happening at Apple with the Mac OS, and that's why they even delivered something like Vista. Not to offer every Vista user the option to upgrade for 50 dollars or less is more confirmation as to their desire to maintain this unhealthy monetary momentum. Microsoft will go bankrupt from within and no this is not about dollars and more about "sense".
      • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

        @netmgr@... dude i was just pointing out a mistake in her chart. i actually build images using the embedded o/s for industrial controllers, so i know what the difference between them are and what they are used for.
      • Who cares?

        Those that want to be accurately informed.

        A good article. What's surprising is Mary believes MS has a roadmap;-)
        Richard Flude
      • What's surprising is that Richard Flude

        thinks he's saying something of importance.
        (Pliney was right!)
        John Zern
      • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

        Get a grip. They are catered to different target markets. And Google's they are for personal consumer, not even enterprise. See your hatred towards Microsoft totally blind you. I am just wondering how Mary Jo missed that point. Google Chrome and Android Tablets/phones are targeted to the personal information systems users and may be enterprsie, where as the OSes that Mary Jo mentiones here are for different markets, like personal information system users, enterprise information system users, POS Kiosks, industrial components such as healthcare, manufacturing, flights etc. Just look at her chart and you will realize. Mary Jo I expected more than this from you. How did you miss to really read your own chart?
        Ram U
      • I Think You Missed her Real Point! ;)

        @netmgr@... Although she used what Balmer said as a "Come On", what she was really getting at was that Google really only has two one size fits all mobile OS's. Whereas Microsoft is working to better custom fit mobile systems to prospective device and targeted user needs! ...more for flippancy than stating a fact!

        That said, though I don't particularly love Microsoft, their approach is more elegant than Apple's or Google's. Who are only engaged or care about, putting out more generic OS's for the masses!

        Apple is basically saying, "This is the device we're building and we cloned a down port of our generic desktop OS. You can take it or leave it. But we'll get fat, rich and arrogant off you.... so there, take that smack in the face... peasants"!

        Although Google won't get rich off the OS itself; it's OS's are simply like the generic prize included in your two boxes of Cracker Jacks! :D

        So is it about Apple's Mass Produced, One Device/One Size OS fits All System Offerings? ....or Google's 1000's of Devices with a Mass Produced One Size Fits All Free OS? .....or Microsoft's more custom marketed OS for many markets and devices???

        For that answer, we'll all have to wait to see what happens over the next few years!!! .....keeping up with the your neighbor's latest Jones'ing Cool Device (Apple) seems very faddish. Google seems like it's trading places with old Microsoft's past Generic Desktop Domination. While Microsoft may not have their device sales numbers, it'll be taking care of all the niche player's needs in Enterprise, etc and designing unique software properties that can still make a Fat Buck or 3 or 4 Billion! ;)
    • Embedded Standard 7

      Thanks. Yes, you are right. I will fix that. It is not based on Embedded Compact. MJ
      Mary Jo Foley
    • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

      Considering your background, I apologize for such a stringent rebuttal. Out of context for why you were conveying such information. Although not directed to you, my general comments about Microsoft's motives still stand from a consumer's viewpoint.
  • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

    Reminds me of what Steve Jobs said recently. "For the first time ever, we will have a Mac OS Home version, a Mac OS Business version, and a Mac OS Enterprise version. And you can have them all for only $129." :P
  • Brand is key to Ballmer's distinction

    I have also noted Ballmer's claim, but he has a clear distinction that does hold true. While Microsoft may have all these versions, they are all branded "Windows-," while Google carries the Chrome and Android brands. Either sides' underlying technical differentiators don't matter in Ballmer's argument. His is purely a business perspective that claims one OS brand should win over multiple brands in terms of communication and marketing; the extent to which Ballmer really understands the differences between Chrome and Android, and all the Windows "OSes" is undertermined.
  • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

    When Ballmer criticised Google for having two Operating Systems, he wasn't saying "one too many", what he meant was, "Only Two?"
    • Nice one;-)

      beat me to it
      Richard Flude
  • Headache

    I've got a headache from trying to decipher this. Seriously WTF is up with so many variations of mediocracy. I'm surprised developers can even understand the road map.
    panic man
    • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

      @panic man <br><br>Well, something have to <b>stick</b> I guess was the thinking. <br><br>I've heard with all the videos on YouTube of kids intuitively using their parents iPads, Ballmer decided to release next the "Windows Embedded Compact Womb Edition". :P
    • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

      @panic man

      Hehe I got your pain. MS always like to fork so many products. Whatever happened to KISS

      Anyway if you need to access your standard Windows apps, you can always use virtualization software such as ThinServer
  • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

    I absolutely do hate CE on my terminal server clients!
    Yuk - never again - i'd rather switch too linux/android...
    By mixing the CE core with windowsCE-core it will only get worse.
    My advise to my customers will be - no windows on embedded devices. I'd rather go with Android (yuk - some extra trees need to be chopped down near Redmond for new furniture).
    Have a nice evening mr. Bully Ballmer.
    Mutley Dastardly
  • Only one Windows Mobile

    Basically I think the point that Balmer was trying to make is that Windows Phone 7 is going to be a single OS with strict guidelines for mobile makers. From what I have heard and read the phone makers will have to meet guidelines and include a minimum level of certain features and M$ will not allow customization of WM7 that will limit the ability of any of its features. I do understand the articles statement " The pot & the Kettle" but I believe this was what was meant by only one M$ mobile OS
    • RE: Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

  • Customer confusion?

    [i]Wouldn't just one or two choices result in less PC maker and customer confusion?[/i]

    It isn't like the customer will go into the store and ask to buy an HTC smartphone and the clerk will ask which of the 6 Windows OSs the customer wants. In that respect, it is totally different than the "confusion" faced by customres when buying a PC (a confusion, BTW, that is [b]grossly[/b] exaggerated by those with an anti-Microsoft agenda).

    As for "PC" makers, you are mistaken again. "PC" makers aren't going to be interested in any of these. MS offers different OSs that are geared towards drastically different devices. Some are geared towards smartphones. The "Kin" OS isn't even being offered to anyone so isn't a source of confusion. Some are geared towards devices you wouldn't even know was running Windows, like ATMs.

    This is as confusing as saying that furniture makers have a hundred types of wood to choose from. Furniture makers know what wood they need, as do electronics makers. Consumers aren't going to get confused by this any more than they are confused that some of Apple's mobile devices use iOS and some use OS X.