Microsoft to boost Windows CE Linux-style?

Microsoft may give away the software to developers in the embedded device market in an effort to blunt Linux inroads

Feeling pressure from Linux in the embedded device market, Microsoft is contemplating giving Windows CE to some developers for free.

The company is unlikely to go so far as to claim its effort to be Linux-like open source, but it nonetheless seems to hope it can ride the open source movement's coattails.

Microsoft could make public its plans to open the Windows CE source base as soon as its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in late April, sources said.

The software giant could afford to give away the Windows CE OS to encourage developer support for the embedded device market, which includes items like set-top boxes. Licensing fees for a set-top cable box, for example, costs little on a per-copy basis; one source speculated that, in large deals, Microsoft charges less than $1 (62p) per copy. Microsoft's revenue comes, instead, on development tools and maintenance contracts, the sources said.

For now, according to developers, Microsoft isn't contemplating going so far as to turn Windows CE into an open source project, which would allow them to make changes to the source code and share their work with Microsoft and others in the development community. Instead, the action will be more of a public relations move -- an attempt to capitalise on open source's popularity.

Microsoft needs to tread cautiously, however. If the company were to claim that making Windows CE available to embedded licensees for free is equivalent to making it open source, then it would incur the wrath of open source advocates. Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems found this out the hard way when it initially attempted to equate its Sun Community Source Licence with the GNU public licence.

Microsoft is considering the move to stave off competitive embedded Linux products, sources add, not in an attempt to bamboozle the US Department of Justice, with whom it is embroiled in antitrust settlement talks. Opening up Microsoft's source code and/or application programming interfaces could be one of the concessions the DoJ is seeking as grounds for settlement. Microsoft, for its part, declined to comment on its Windows CE licensing intentions.

Windows CE is best known as Microsoft's operating system for handheld devices. However, Microsoft is also positioning it as an embedded OS that complements its Windows NT Embedded product. Windows NT Embedded, Microsoft has said, is aimed at larger, more complex devices, such as network switches.

The embedded OS market is dominated by alternative vendors such as Wind River Systems, QNX Software Systems and Microware Systems, which furnish the system software for a wide range of devices -- from cable boxes to the Mars lander. Linux players -- including Lineo (formerly Caldera Systems), Red Hat/Cygnus and the VMELinux Project -- are increasingly targeting this space, as well.

Despite Microsoft's best efforts in the embedded and handheld markets, Windows CE continues to be a stepchild at Microsoft, in desperate need of a Cinderella-like transformation. Developers say one problem is that Windows CE doesn't have a clear place in Microsoft's OS hierarchy. "CE is neither fish nor fowl," one developer said. "It's not really Windows, and it's not really NT."

Take me to the Linux Lounge.

Take me to the DoJ/Microsoft special.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom and read what others have to say.