Don’t think that you’ll be able to escape Windows 8 by going to the mall – or just about anywhere else. On Tuesday night, Microsoft invited the Windows 8 environment into the embedded world of cars, kiosks, handheld devices and just about everywhere else.

Beginning in early 2013, Microsoft will make five versions of Windows Embedded 8 available to developers: Windows 8 Embedded Standard, plus “Pro,” “Industry,” “Handheld” and “Automotive” versions. Microsoft will also release Windows Embedded Compact 2013, designed for small-footprint devices that require flexible hardware, the use of touch- and gesture-based inputs and real-time support. Microsoft also made a preview release of Windows Embedded Standard available on its website, available today for developers. 

Windows Has A Long Embedded History

Embedding versions of Windows in consumer products like a mall kiosk or a grocery store checkout isn’t new. What products use Windows? Somewhat embarassingly for Microsoft, a great way to find out is to do an image search for something like “blue screen kiosk,” which will pull up pictures of all sorts of products that have used Windows – and crashed.

But Windows Embedded general manager Barb Edson also said that Windows powers Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Sea, the largest cruise ship in the world, where the systems help employees manage and prevent food spoilage. And a bit closer to home, the Cincinnati Reds use Windows Embedded to manage the team’s ticket sales. In all, IDC estimates the market for these “intelligent systems” will be $1.4 trillion by 2016.

Part of the value of Windows Embedded 8, Edson explained, was selling an end-to-end solution; in other words, Microsoft’s enterprise sales teams go to customers and not only try to sell them the Windows Embedded 8 OS, but also a suite of services that extends into the enterprise: from front-end hardware to back-end analytical tools that can crunch the big data needed to power in-store retail kiosks. Microsoft already has a version of Windows Server and SQL Server optimized for these embedded devices.

Buy Cat Litter Using Windows 8?

For a consumer, however, the message is simple: If a retailer wishes it, you could be seeing the Live Tile-based Windows 8 “Metro” interface at stores and airports. “There’s an opportunity for the industry to attach devices to the entire infrastructure,” Edson said. “That means there’s a broad opportunity for PCs, phones, tablets and embedded devices combined.” 

Does that mean that you could be seeing Live Tiles while checking in at the airport? Yes, although you might not recognize them. Although the underlying software infrastructure of a kiosk may be powered by Windows 8 Embedded, a Target store might show you only four live tiles at a time, Edson said: possibly something like “bridal registry,” “today’s discounts” and others. And the retailer has no requirement or incentive to make those kiosks look like a PC.

“An OEM [device manufacturer] can build the device they want,” Edson said. “They can use features as they want, with a full experience like a keyboard,” or choose to eliminate some of those additional features.  

Certain Windows Embedded 8 versions, such as the Standard version, can “lock down” certain features. The idea is to prevent users from turning the kiosk into a PC that they can play with and possibly hack into. Windows 8 Embedded Standard can turn off certain gestures, for example, prevent the software keyboard from being enabled, or block the Windows 8 “charms” from being shown. On the other hand, using Windows 8 as a foundation should mean that familiar touchscreen gestures should also work on kiosks, making them more accessible to a generation who has grown up on iPads (and Surface tablets, Microsoft hopes).

The Windows Embedded 8 operating systems support only the x86 chip architecture made by Intel and AMD. Windows 8 Compact supports the ARM processor architecture, making it a sort of Windows RT for the embedded space. That means that customers will have to develop their own apps, but that’s far less of a problem when they’re trying to present a particular experience – a dedicated mall kiosk is often designed to run a single application, not play Angry Birds.

Handheld Devices – Not Smartphones

Don’t expect Windows Embedded 8 Handheld to compete with Windows Phone. The list of handheld devices running Windows Phone Embedded Handheld includes handheld scanners used to track packages for shipment and manage inventory.

One intriguing question mark will be Windows Embedded 8 for Automotive, which the company hopes will power the next generation of cars. Microsoft isn’t saying which car makers are along for the ride, just that it’s working with a “group of preselected partners” to develop the technology.

Windows Embedded has long been one of the geekier versions of Windows, hidden away behind counters and in back rooms to link business storefronts to industry management software and other back-room applications. But with Windows 8 designed to be a more cutting-edge, consumer-friendly operating system you might see it sneak into your local mall. Or your next car’s dashboard.

Photo illustration of Ford Sync and Windows 8 by Fredric Paul.