At a workshop last month in San Jose, California, Microsoft unveiled the next generation of Microsoft's Embedded Windows strategy, featuring both Windows XP Embedded (XPe) and a revised version of the Windows CE OS called CE .NET.

The key advantage of both new OSs is their complete integration with the Microsoft Visual Studio.NET development environment, which puts embedded development on the same footing as development for any other Windows OS. This integration is especially evident in XPe, which provides essentially the same OS environment as Windows XP Professional in a modular package that you can customize for applications ranging from thin clients to set-top boxes. XPe replaces both Windows NT 4.0 Embedded and a version of Windows 2000 that Microsoft provided for embedded server platforms. XPe is more modular than either of those products--developers can include or exclude more than 10,000 modules (including services and drivers) from a particular build, as required. To manage those components, the XPe development environment uses either the Microsoft SQL Server database or a standalone runtime SQL engine.

CE .NET provides a more limited subset of Windows features than the Win2K or NT embedded products, but CE .NET can run using much less memory without requiring any kind of disk drive. Developers can port CE .NET to various CPU families beyond the familiar Intel Pentium line that XPe requires. Key features of the new release--beyond integration with Visual Studio.NET--include a wide range of new connectivity options, including Bluetooth and 802.1x protocols, a RAS server module, Universal plug-and-play (UPnP) device support, and RDP support. Microsoft claims greatly increased reliability in this version of CE, which provides realtime support (256 priority levels and average interrupt service routine--ISR--and interrupt service thread--IST--latencies of 2.8 uSec and 17.9 uSec, respectively, when running on a Pentium-166 processor), and includes the Kerberos security protocol for operation in Win2K Active Directory (AD) and other secure environments. CE .NET will also be the first OS to support the .NET Compact Framework, although the technology wasn't in Beta 2 (the version provided to workshop attendees).

Workshop attendees participated in hands-on sessions for XPe and CE .NET. I attended the CE .NET lab and built a complete, custom version of CE for a single-board computer from scratch in less than half an hour. The system I built was capable of hosting a Visual Basic (VB) application for test purposes, and all development tools--both for the OS and the application--presented in a point-and-click Visual Studio environment.

Several Microsoft partners demonstrated devices they built using the new products, including an XPe-based set-top box from Siemens with digital TV/DVD, video-on-demand, personal video recording (to the hard disk), simplified Web browsing, and email capabilities. According to Siemens, developers ported the UI application in less than 48 hours. Wise demonstrated a small footprint XPe-based thin client that used RDP and a local Web browser. Another vendor showed an XPe-based cash register with a touch pad and USB-based barcode scanner. CE .NET-based devices included mobile Web pads and a residential gateway with a built-in firewall and Web cache. Early adopters include Casio, Intermec, Siemens, and Wyse.

For more information, visit the Microsoft Embedded Web site.