Making sense of Microsoft's mobile OS four-way

Microsoft has four mobile OSes with 'Windows' in the name, but each is very different than the rest

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Last fall, Microsoft said that just 5,000 Windows 7 touch SDKs had been downloaded in the previous 18 months by 250 companies; by contrast, more than 100,000 iPhone OS SDKs were downloaded in the first four days after its June 2008 launch. It's clear developers don't believe in Windows 7 touch, either.

Every version of a Windows tablet has been a dismal failure, and although companies such as Asustek may be hoping for the iPad mania to transfer to their planned Windows 7 slates, I wouldn't hold my breath. In fact, I doubt they'll actually ship these products -- such vaporware announcements are hardly rare, and OEM companies typically have fast product cycles that make any announcement of a product to ship in six to nine months quite suspect. At best, it means they're starting to work on their development.

Windows Embedded Compact 7 for custom devices
Microsoft's announcement last week of Windows Embedded Compact 7 mentioned its potential use in slates, making me wonder whether Microsoft was remedying the Windows 7 touch deficiencies by coming out with a new mobile OS specifically designed for touch-based slates, to better compete with the Apple iPad and the slew of Android-based slates expected this fall.

Not quite -- Microsoft's Wurster explains that WEC7 is essentially the next version of Windows Embedded Compact Edition (Embedded CE), a Windows Mobile-derived OS meant for a variety of devices, such as the signature pads a deliveryperson might have you sign and set-top boxes. It's not a version of Windows 7 but a new version of Embedded CE.

The good news is that it could be used in slates, smartphones, and MIDs. It also has an extensible core gesture library for touchscreen devices and a Silverlight-derived presentation layer for the kind of rich interactivity the iPhone has led us all to expect in mobile devices.

The bad news is that because it is designed for embedded devices, which are usually custom creations, every version could be different, based on what parts of WEC7 a device maker chooses to implement. You won't get a broad platform for which application developers can write to, nor can you expect various WEC7 devices to have the same capabilities or interfaces. It's up the device maker to tailor WEC7 to its needs, Wurster says. That's similar to the freedom that Google's Android OS and Nokia and Intel's MeeGo provide, with the concomitant possibility of intense fragmentation.

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