MS and Linux get into embedded row

In its latest salvo against the open-source movement, Microsoft slams Linux's suitability for non-PC devices. Red Hat calls the comments 'full of errors'
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Linux companies are incensed by a recently published Microsoft document that compares Windows XP Embedded to embedded Linux, calling some of its claims misleading or factually wrong. The document outlines what it calls the shortcomings of Linux for embedded devices, calling it convoluted, difficult to develop for, expensive and insecure.

The document, called "Why Microsoft Windows XP Embedded and Not Embedded Linux?" appeals to manufacturers who are looking for an operating system to drive their embedded product -- basically, any digital device other than a PC. Its aim is to try and convince them to use Windows. Microsoft has yet to make a substantial impact in the embedded market, which is dominated by proprietary operating systems. Linux is the main competition for Windows in driving devices like Internet appliances and set-top boxes.

"It looks like a classic Microsoft (version) 1.0, full of errors and omissions," said Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer of Red Hat, which makes a leading embedded Linux distribution.

Linux is favoured by many developers because they are allowed access to the software's source code, allowing them to modify it at will, while Windows' source code can only be modified by Microsoft or a very small number of companies working on specific projects for which Microsoft lacks expertise. The two operating systems are enemies in the server and desktop markets as well, and earlier this year Microsoft executives went out of their way to describe the open-source development model, on which Linux is based, as running contrary to basic business principles.

In the document, published without fanfare at the end of November, Microsoft implies that Linux is an unproven operating system that is not well adapted to the needs of embedded developers, and even that it lacks appropriate security.

While Linux "was never designed to address the needs of the embedded market," Windows XP Embedded is "comprehensive" and "proven", and is "the most reliable version of Windows ever," according to the document.

However, Linux is considered extremely reliable, which is one of the reasons it is popular as a server platform. Its stability is documented by Web sites such as Netcraft.co.uk.

"We found it amusing that Microsoft would tout the fact that XP is so much more stable that it only crashes once every 30 days instead of every two weeks," said Tiemann. "We think that consumers would not tolerate consumer devices crashing. There are Linux servers that have been running for years straight. It would not be possible to know if Windows XP has that kind of reliability -- it is too new."

Microsoft makes broad claims that Linux is more difficult to develop for than Windows XP Embedded. "There is no common integrated development environment (IDE) for Linux," the document states. Tiemann named several IDEs, including KDevelop from KDE and Eclipse from IBM. "They would argue that if you've got a choice, that's bad," he said. (He also noted that the document incorrectly referred to an IDE as "integrated development electronics". The mistake was corrected on Tuesday.)

Microsoft also criticises Linux for not offering "an Internet browser that is equivalent to the features in Internet Explorer 6.0," and says that Linux's "five different window managers and at least four competing browsers" make things more difficult for developers.

"Different browsers serve different purposes, and the fact is that people should be free to choose any browser for any purpose," Tiemann said. He pointed out that some Linux browsers are more standards-compliant than Internet Explorer, and argued that Microsoft's strategy is to promote IE-compatibility rather than standards compatibility. "We believe that it should be the market which decides which browser to use, rather than Microsoft," he said.

Microsoft compares Windows XP Embedded's "flexibility and configurability", scaling down to a minimum size of 4.8MB, to Red Hat and Lineo's embedded Linux distributions, which it says require more memory. However, Red Hat's Tiemann points out that the figures cited in the document are for a "relatively full-featured, network-enabled and GUI enabled device."

The Linux kernel is capable of driving devices from a mobile phone or a watch up to a Web server, Tiemann said, whereas Microsoft uses two different code bases -- Windows CE, which is based on its own code base, and Windows Embedded, which is based on the desktop operating system. "Linux has evolved to a system where one OS kernel can span a broad range of devices. There are no code forks that exist where you've got an embedded that is totally distinct from the desktop/server product, as we have seen with Microsoft in the past," Tiemann said.

Nancy Nemes, Microsoft's embedded product manager for EMEA, responded that two code bases allow the products to be "more specialised".

A criticism that strikes at the heart of Linux boosters is the claim that Linux is not secure. Microsoft says that Windows XP Embedded offers "enterprise level security" and invests in security testing and bug-fixing, while Linux "relies heavily on the Open Source community and source access, assuming that the 'many eyes' of the Open Source community can equal a more secure OS."

Microsoft has long been criticised for a failure to keep Windows secure, and several times in the past year alone major viruses such as Nimda and Code Red have shut down large numbers of Microsoft servers.

The document also heavily stresses Windows XP Embedded's compatibility with other Microsoft ventures, such as the e-commerce infrastructure project .Net and hardware drivers. Red Hat allows that Microsoft has been compatible with more hardware drivers in the past, but says this is a product of Microsoft's monopoly in the operating system market, a monopoly that was declared illegal by a US federal court.

In general, Microsoft says it offers an "unmatched technology portfolio" while Linux is "a follower, not an innovator."

"That's a classic case of the schoolyard bully calling someone names," said Tiemann. He said that if one examines the sources of Microsoft's ideas, it is clear that "it is Microsoft who is the follower."

Microsoft's Nemes defended the document. "Windows delivers a wide-reaching platform for dynamic applications and services," she said. "It has a consistent programming model, familiar development tools, great interoperability between devices, and really the best access to Microsoft applications and services."

Tiemann said that the choice for hardware makers comes down to whether they want to be dependent on Microsoft or not. "Companies have to decide early on: do they want to build a product in Microsoft's space, or build their own product?" he said. "In the embedded systems space, there are a lot of people who want to maintain control over their intellectual property."

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