Are You Ready for Windows in Your Things?

We’ve heard the phrase “Windows Everywhere” for some decades now, and many of us already came to the conclusion that if you someday carried Windows with you wherever you go, that’s what it meant. Windows Embedded is a phrase we haven’t found ourselves saying as often, though it’s been around for five years and its predecessor, Windows CE, since 1997.

In an era when it’s more popular to outsource computing power to a data center someplace in “the cloud,” you’d think a consumer-oriented campaign around distributed computing to smaller clients would seem a little antiquated, like a trip through Disney’s Tomorrowland circa 1970.

But today, Microsoft is launching exactly that – a kind of consumer awareness campaign around the emergence of Windows as a real platform inside not just PCs or servers or tablets or phones, but stuff. Garage door openers. Jukeboxes. Shipping crates. Cue the Rod Serling music. Picture if you will a universe where all the things communicated with all the other things.

“In the last few years, we’ve been hearing from an academic perspective this theory around the Internet of Things – the ability to have devices connect to the network, making this opportunity of IOT spark a new revolution,” says Barb Edson, senior director of Microsoft’s Windows Embedded marketing group, in an interview with RWW. “It’s really forcing businesses to think of the possibilities of these specialized devices within their own organizations, the critical component really being this network connectivity coupled with this anytime/anywhere access to executable data. It’s really transforming the embedded systems market into something much more.”

The phrase Microsoft will now start using for all classes of devices that can run the Embedded platform is intelligent systems, the caveat being that it’s not really the individual device running Windows Embedded that’s either intelligent or the system. Rather, the system comes about through the distribution of logical processes to the very things that are being managed or controlled – the coalition of these Embedded-driven devices are the “intelligent systems.”

Not outside the box, not inside the box…The box.

Edson offers us one example from a Microsoft client in Europe that’s a world-renowned banana company. Bananas are shipped in crates on ships. The location of those crates during the shipping process – whether they’re on deck or down in the lower hull – can directly impact how soon they’ll ripen. In the past, under-ripened bananas were manually extracted to warehouses where light and heat were applied to equalize their ripeness with those stored on deck. That process cost money; what’s more, it kept green, under-ripe bananas (which some consumers want) from being sellable.

Enter “intelligent systems.” “What the European Innovation Center has done is create intelligent crates for this company,” explains Edson, “so as they’re coming over on the boat, there’s a constant stream of data and insight being shared, so they can make critical business decisions about when to ship those bananas. They can plan in-port to ship directly to supermarkets, for example. You can imagine the efficiency in their supply chain, in terms of both labor costs and quality.”

But where is the intelligence in this system, and where should it be? RWW asked Edson, perhaps in the banana company example, the logic behind the decision-making process doesn’t or shouldn’t come from an application housed on the banana crate. Perhaps it could be in an app distributed from the cloud.

“We believe that for many business scenarios, there’s going to be value to have the intelligence on the device,” responded Microsoft’s Barb Edson, “and the operating system processing capabilities to do analytics at the device level. You’ll have human interaction with the device, so you’ll want to have data analytics on the device itself. We firmly believe the device needs to be intelligent, and be communicating with the back-end system.”

It’s the exact opposite theory of cloud computing, quite literally: With the cloud, logic is centralized behind what Microsoft itself calls a “model” and the thinner, more nimble client is assigned the separate role of “controller.” With the Windows Embedded model, the logic is distributed through apps directly to the device, so that the logic “touches” the user.

It also means your banana crates need a good 3G data plan.

If there’s demand, there must be a reason

“The intelligent system will be driven from the enterprise. CIOs are recognizing that they need to be concerned about the operating system that’s on the device,” argues Edson. “No longer will an OEM be able to just develop a device, ship it out, and forget about it. The end organization is going to see the value of having the connectivity back in the back-end infrastructure, where they’re already running a Microsoft shop. So they get a better value in these edge devices through that connectivity. The business value for them is, these edge devices are typically either customer-facing or form the epicenter of their business, so they’re driving value to their business. Instead of the necessary evil of the back end infrastructure, where you’re having to pay for that, it’s revenue generating.”

Another example Edson offers involves a fast food chain that uses digital signage above its registers, eliminating the need for managers to change the signs directly. This creates the opportunity for franchise hubs to change prices on the fly, and implement instantaneous promotions without launching colossal marketing campaigns.

Anyone who’s completely sold on the cloud-driven model as the future of all distributed computing may not be observing an unavoidable set of statistics, compiled for Microsoft by IDC: This year alone, 1.8 billion devices will be shipped with embedded operating systems such as Microsoft’s. That shipment number is expected to double by 2015 – a growth rate exceeding that of PCs and servers in the same period. The demand is apparently there, and if Windows doesn’t fill it, something else will.

“We look at these specialized devices as the ‘next mile’ of IT,” says Barb Edson, “and a significant opportunity to help customers solve the next level of business problems that this new connectivity will bring about.”

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