REDMOND, Wash. — Sept. 9, 2011 — Cows and fuel pumps aren’t typically thought of as having anything in common, but a Dutch dairy farmer recently changed that. By tagging each cow’s ear with an embedded device — the same technology that helps fill your car’s tank with gas — the farmer can monitor the vital signs of each head of cattle and track the overall health of the herd.
Embedded systems have been used in limited capacities for more than 40 years, but within the past 15 to 20 years they have seen increasingly widespread adoption. Microsoft entered the embedded market in 1996 with the release of Windows CE 1.0. Since that time, the company has provided a steady stream of embedded platforms and technologies that are used daily in a broad range of consumer and business scenarios.
Research firm IDC reports the market for intelligent systems is developing rapidly, with over 1.8 billion units and over $1 trillion in revenue today. Further, it estimates that by 2015, the market will double to nearly 4 billion units and over $2 trillion in revenue. In addition to increased numbers, these systems will also feature dramatically increased power and functionality. Windows Embedded General Manager Kevin Dallas highlights their untapped potential to capitalize on the data these billions of devices are capturing.
Improving Logistics Through Intelligent Systems
Unlocking Untapped Potential
For the past decade, the assumption has been that devices were unconnected, existing in isolation from the company’s network. Recently, there has been this emerging notion of the Internet of Things that connects devices to one another and to the network, and that drives improvements in the collection and analysis of information. This has essentially sparked a revolution and triggered businesses to think about the potential of data collection as a new form of currency. Although the Internet of Things has historically been purely aspirational, that’s no longer the case.
With the availability of Wi-Fi and cellular networks, Internet connectivity has become pervasive, cloud computing has provided a vast amount of data storage and analysis potential, and hardware and user-interface technologies have expanded the potential for new devices. This has led to an explosion of IP-enabled devices — from light bulbs to an HMI panel on a factory floor, and coin-operated gaming devices to remote monitoring devices, such as those found on the herd of cows.
The inherent value of embedded technology is in the data it can collect and distribute throughout a company’s workforce and even its customer base, which has enormous potential to support daily business operations and long-term strategy. Once collected, devices can send information to datacenters (based onsite or in the cloud), from which employees can then analyze the data to glean business intelligence.
Businesses can now make decisions and act on them in a matter of minutes or hours using the same IP-connected devices that fed them the data.
“The embedded market has evolved to a point where a combination of key technologies are available to make intelligent systems a reality,” says Mario Morales, program vice president of Semiconductors and EMS at IDC. “Intelligent systems clearly increase productivity with each connection; however, the challenge for businesses is to clearly define the benefits to their bottom line. Leading vendors and service providers must provide critical mass to empower customers to make the clear choice to invest in a time of uncertainty to have long-term sustainability in the marketplace.”
Simply put, the combination of network connectivity — coupled with anytime, anywhere access to executable data — has transformed embedded systems into something much more tangible and beneficial to enterprises: intelligent systems.
Intelligent Systems Meeting Industry Needs
Microsoft recognized that the embedded market was evolving toward more sophisticated intelligent systems, and, in September 2010, took the proactive step of aligning Windows Embedded within the Management and Security Division of the Microsoft Server and Tools Business. This move positioned Microsoft to lead this evolutionary step for the industry by enabling Windows Embedded to continue delivering the power of Windows, coupled with Microsoft's extensive suite of technologies that address security, connectivity and management from the Server and Tools Business.
Windows Embedded remains focused on delivering end-to-end solutions from specialized devices to the cloud and on meeting the evolving needs of OEMs that are building devices, as well as the enterprises that are managing them. These solutions make it easier to access data and consume services, and they expose services that are used by other devices, applications and cloud services in industries such as manufacturing, retail, medical and automotive.
For example, the retail industry has already been transformed by mobile POS devices, in-store kiosks, digital signage and handheld devices. With the addition of sensors, touchscreens and other technology, customers benefit from a more engaging shopping experience: Signage displays promotions that are based on a person’s gender, as well as variables such as time of day. And shoppers can use the touch-screen interface to seek additional information on a product.
Furthermore, with device management technology from Microsoft, businesses can instantly manage content, security protocols and general software updates on digital signage, or other types of Windows Embedded-based devices, throughout all store locations.
With the emergence of intelligent systems, retailers also have the ability to monitor inventory levels, product lifecycle and other data and to respond instantly and appropriately by transferring inventory or adjusting the promotions displayed on the digital signage.
Intelligent systems can also be extended to cloud computing services such as Windows Azure, SQL Azure and Office 365. By harnessing this additional computing power, businesses can monitor trends over the long term, which gives them greater insight for updating their business plans, negotiating next year’s leases or developing the product mix for the following quarter.
Tailored Versus Trusted: Finding a Balanced Solution
One of the strengths of the Windows platform is in the safety and security of an operating system that is largely a known quantity, whereas Dallas sees the strength of his offerings as being more in their flexibility.
“Specialized devices are really the ‘next mile’ of the IT network because they can be deployed into virtually every facet of a business’s operations and help expand the amount of available businesses intelligence,” Dallas says. “Our goal is to strike a balance between creating tools, platforms and services that provide the consistency and dependability of Windows and creating those that customers can tailor to meet a particular need.”
Dallas’ Windows Embedded business maintains that balance through close ties with other groups within Microsoft, such as the OEM business, European Microsoft Innovation Center (EMIC), the Microsoft Advanced Technology Center (located in China), Windows Client, and the Server and Tools Business. In addition, Windows has developed strategic industry partnerships (such as its current work with Intel) and is engaging with independent software and hardware vendors, distributors and system integrators that are members of the Windows Embedded Partner Program.
Creating Intelligent — and Dependable — Systems
To ensure the business value of intelligent systems, Microsoft is focused on providing a comprehensive stack of software tools and services that are trustworthy, efficient and flexible. These offerings could include powering a device that is smart and connected; generating data on the device that is stored, transmitted to other devices or sent back to the enterprise; or running analytics on the device or back at the enterprise.
Windows Embedded has already made progress through the release last March of Windows Embedded Device Manager. Leveraging the power of Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager, it gives IT staff the ability to control intelligent systems that are distributed across the company’s IT network.
Over the course of the next 18 to 24 months, Microsoft will deliver a series of products and services that accrue to this goal. For example, the company is developing an advanced machine-to-machine (M2M) connection manager, code-named “Pontecchio,” to streamline the way devices connect to network services in order to make the data streams more predictable and efficient. In addition, Microsoft is investing in security and identity management technology to ensure the data streams are capable of working seamlessly with on-premise, private and public cloud services. This will help make it easier for IT staff to maintain the security of a network and its data.
Furthermore, Microsoft will deliver a robust platform and APIs that enable developers to create customized LOB applications. These applications will result in a wide variety of unique solutions and tailored experiences that transform the way businesses use intelligent systems.
The Internet of Things: A Platform for Cloud-Based Services
Once these investments are completed, Microsoft will have created an intelligent platform that delivers on the potential of the Internet of Things and that provides greater opportunity for the creation of value-added software and services.
EMIC has already created a new service that’s part of Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2. Known as StreamInsight, it enables companies to monitor multiple data streams and analyze the data in real time. Long term, the company envisions businesses having a wide variety of specialized devices that are tied into the cloud as part of a broad intelligent system strategy, allowing them to leverage industry-specific services or data-analysis capabilities that provide greater business insight.
“We’ve seen some remarkable advances in creating specialized devices that provide new touch points for collecting data throughout a company,” Dallas says. “Cloud computing permeates this concept that we call the Internet of Things and — just as the devices are breaking new ground for the collection of data — it’s expanding the possibilities for where that data is sent and how it’s used.”