Microsoft defends Windows CE code-share

The new version of Microsoft's Windows CE code-sharing agreement must be popular because vendors have signed up to it, says the software giant

Microsoft has responded to criticisms of the new version of its shared source initiative for Windows CE, announced on Wednesday.

Clarifying the details, Microsoft confirmed that developers are required to licence their improvements back to Microsoft for no royalty, but said this is not as onerous as observers might think, pointing out that the big names such as ARM, Hitachi, Samsung, Intel, MIPS and Mitsubishi have signed up to the conditions.

"Microsoft has been listening to what customers tell us," said Hardy Poppingar, EMEA product manager for embedded products at Microsoft. "With the premium programme, they can be more innovative and differentiate themselves from the competition."

In a teleconference, Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief technical officer for Advanced Strategies and Policy, confirmed that the agreement requires developers to licence any derivative code back to Microsoft for use in future versions of Windows CE. Under this licence, Microsoft would pay no royalty payment to the developers.

The programme now opens all the Windows CE source code, except for a small amount which Microsoft has licensed from elsewhere -- the first Microsoft shared-source programme to open the entire source code of a product, and the first to allow third parties to sell derivative products.

The agreement covers two kinds of modification envisaged, both of which are very different in business terms: chip vendors making modifications to improve the performance of Windows CE on devices that use their products, and other vendors making modifications that give their devices features to distinguish them from other Windows CE devices.

Silicon vendors will want their modifications incorporated as soon as possible, as they will make their chips more attractive than their rivals'. For example, European silicon vendor ARM managed to get a 25 percent increase in multimedia performance by working under the previous shared source licence. "We folded that back in so it is useful to all people using WinCE on ARM processors," said Mundie. "It is in our mutual interest to do so."

One would expect system integrators and device vendors, on the other hand, to be less keen to release their modifications since, when they hand the code to Microsoft, they will lose their differentiation, and get no royalties from Microsoft.

Although they keep ownership of any intellectual property in derivative software, the agreement requires them to license that property back to Microsoft, for no royalty. "We have rights equivalent to ownership going forward," said Mundie. "They would retain own rights to software as well."

As well as the one-sided approach to payment for intellectual property rights, the programme has been criticised for the short time-span in which vendors can capitalise on any distinctive modification. Developers will have a window of "at least six months" in which they have exclusive rights to their modifications, after which Microsoft will have the right to include it in a future version of Windows CE, thereby removing the developer's advantage over its rivals.

Mundie maintained that the period will always be longer than six months, and could in fact be much longer: "What gates it is when we do another major release. If the next one is two years from now, the developer gets a two year advantage." If this is not enough for the developer, then they still have the right to make "de novo" additions, drivers and programs that run on the Windows CE platform, said Mundie: "That would not be considered a derivative work that has to be licensed back to us."

Microsoft has no plans to offer this kind of licence for other versions of Windows, as desktops and servers are well-suited to a "one-size-fits-all" approach, said Mundie. "The embedded market is especially good for this sort of initiative," said Poppingar. "There is a broad and diverse range of devices in this market, as every embedded project is unique, involving customisation work."

Mundie denied that the initiative was a response to Linux gaining ground in the embedded market, getting in a few jabs implying that Linux is less "commercial" than Windows CE: "Windows CE has a more complete and sophisticated development environment," said Mundie. "It exceeds what is there [in Linux]. People can do a lot of home-made work on Linux, but this is a commercial grade system with frankly commercial grade support."

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