Demystifying Microsoft's mobile operating system roadmap

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?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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....

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