The Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2008 wasn’t the only big developer-focused event going on last week. Microsoft also had a presence at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) in Boston. The Windows Embedded team used ESC to announce that the next version of Windows Embedded Standard will be based on Windows 7 and that they’re launching a developer competition called SPARKs Will Fly.

During ESC, I had a chat with John Doyle, senior product manager for Windows Embedded. But before talking with Doyle, I first had to figure out what an embedded OS is because the concept was new to me. I soon enough discovered that an embedded OS is an OS used—or embedded—by OEMs on custom hardware devices. The Windows Embedded website has examples of third-party products developed with Windows Embedded OSs—including a portable ultrasound for medical use, a custom retail checkout lane, a digital jukebox, and a robot dog that can kick a soccer ball.

Now, my first thought here was, “Why do we need a robot dog that can kick a soccer ball?” I don’t know. And
yet . . . I kind of like the idea that there is such a thing. As someone who was at an impressionable age when the original Star Wars was released, and who grew up watching Star Trek and other big science fiction tales, it’s always seemed like a disappointment to me that our real-world technology hasn’t matched some of the fictional devices—such as robots—that we’ve lived with in our imaginations for so long. A robot dog kicking a ball is still a long way from a protocol droid, but at least it seems like a good step.

As Doyle told me, “Devices are becoming smarter. And also devices are becoming more multifunction-oriented, and they require connectivity.” Although Windows Embedded is geared mostly toward developers, it’s a technology that IT pros might increasingly need to be aware of. I asked the Windows Embedded team why IT pros need to know about Windows Embedded: “It is important for the IT pros to realize that the number of embedded devices functioning within the enterprise is growing over time. For example, network-attached printers, networked projectors, thin clients, and specialist devices like ATMs, information kiosks, digital signage, point of service terminals, and more, may talk to the existing enterprise infrastructure, including SQL Server, Exchange Server, ASP.NET services, and may need to be monitored, maintained, and updated.”

The latest release is Windows Embedded Standard 2009, which was released to manufacturing last month. As Doyle told me, “The kernel is based on XP. What we did was we moved some of the key features that were needed for the embedded marketplace from Vista and made them available on Windows Embedded Standard 2009. Those type of features were IE 7, Windows Media Player 11, and also RDP—Remote Desktop Protocol.” This version also includes features from Microsoft Silverlight and support for .NET Framework 3.5.

But the big announcement from last week’s ESC was that the next version of Windows Embedded Standard, currently code-named Quebec, will be based on Windows 7. The Quebec release will take advantage of new features of Windows 7, such as multitouch support and better hi-res video support, as well as Silverlight 2, Windows Presentation Foundation, and interoperability with Visual Studio 2010.

Windows Embedded Standard OSs are offered in a componentized model, meaning that developers can pick and choose which specific features of the OS they wish to implement. Although Quebec is being developed concurrently with Windows 7, the componentized nature of the embedded OS means it will take a quarter or two after Windows 7’s final release before Quebec will be available. Microsoft believes it’s important to make the announcement about Windows 7 well in advance to give OEM developers plenty of time to implement the latest technology.

The other big news last week was the announcement of the SPARKs Will Fly contest. This competition springs out of Microsoft’s SPARK Your Imagination community effort, launched in April 2008, which has the goal of providing hardware and embedded OSs to hobbyists and academia for a low price point in order to spark creative development. The contest features big prize money and trips to Microsoft developer conferences in the spring for the finalists and winner.

The SPARKs Will Fly contest has a theme of “home of the future.” I don’t know about you, but that makes me think of Disneyland’s long-ago Monsanto House of the Future. (And, no, I’m not old enough to remember the house personally.) The first round of the contest asks entrants to submit a proposal for “an embedded project that will help realize the home of the future.” And let’s hope those ideas don’t use as much plastic as Monsanto did. The deadline for submitting a proposal is January 7, 2009—but of course you should check the contest website for official rules and up-to-date information. 

In talking about the types of things that could be developed with Windows Embedded OSs, Doyle told me about a SPARK developer who had created an automated martini mixer. Is this a contender for a home-of-the-future project? Will it also serve the martini to you while you lounge in your favorite chair with your feet up on the ottoman? And this just leads me back to Star Wars—didn’t R2D2 serve as a bartender in one of the movies? Do you see how close we’re getting?