Of all the microprocessors and chips sold in the world today, only 2 percent are for traditional servers, desktops, laptops, and mainframes. The other 98 percent are in devices as divergent as refrigerators and telecom switches.
The traditional embedded OS in these devices used to be a proprietary piece of untouchable firmware. But the business world is waking up to the fact that enterprise applications need to be connected to devices other than desktops and laptops.
Handhelds and cellular handsets were the first wave; RFID sensors are on the near horizon. Or, an automotive paint machine might interface with a supply chain management system to reorder a few hundred thousand gallons of teal blue.
Driven by these potential new markets, device vendors are looking for more capable and standardized operating systems; ones that can support an enterprise’s networked environment. Today’s embedded operating systems need to scale. They need to be upgradeable and intelligent.
Enter Microsoft and Linux.
Daya Nadamuni, principal analyst at Gartner, believes the TCO for each OS is about the same. “You still need developer bodies and applications [for Linux],” she tells me.
Indeed, Linux’s biggest strength probably comes not from being a lower-cost solution than Microsoft’s, but from the fact that there is no one company deciding where it is going.
Wind River, whose VxWorks is the leading embedded OS, has partnered with Red Hat to create a 1MB embedded Linux distribution. The company is also creating vertical platforms that link old-school VxWorks with Linux.
Meanwhile, MontaVista has marketed embedded Linux versions for telecom, consumer electronics, and other verticals for about three years. And Inder Singh, CEO of embedded Linux vendor LynuxWorks, tells me his company is already selling well to the telecom industry, where its product is used in telecom switches and base stations.
"People providing services on the back end want a reliable, easy to fix, low-cost solution that also gives them choice,” Singh says.
But John Starkweather, Microsoft’s seniorproduct manager for embedded devices, disagrees with the “no choice with Microsoft” argument. He tells me that Windows Embedded now shares 2 million lines of source code and even allows developers to ship derivatives through a premium source code program.
The fact that you don’t have to pay royalty fees with Linux is still attractive, however. Wind River offers two models: a single production license and one based on royalties. Microsoft only offers aroyalty-based model.
The cost of developer tools is also a factor. The Microsoft embedded developer tool set is $995. The Wind River environment, which includes the OS, market-specific software, the integrated development environment middleware, and services starts at about $10,000 per seat.
One thing is certain: The enterprise and embedded software are on a collision course. Right now in the server world, companies are typically either running Windows with islands of Linux or Linux with islands of Windows. But if there is good middleware in place, it doesn’t matter which OS you are running, Gartner’s Nadamuni says. What’s good for the server may prove to be the next big software market for embedded platforms.