Bringing stability to standard platforms

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The benefits that a standardised computing platform brings are enormous, so what do you do when your supplier changes it? asks Alan Rowe, Windows Embedded Group, MPC Data.

There has been a great deal of change within Microsoft recently, beyond the introduction of Windows 7.  Most consumers may associate the software giant with desktop computing, but OEMs within the retail sector will probably be aware that Microsoft also offers an expanding range of embedded software products targeting specific sectors.

Within the Windows Embedded family there are now platforms for navigational devices and Point of Sale solutions, while Windows Embedded CE is still applicable for many general purpose applications that arent based on an x86 architecture.  However, despite the growing availability of sector-specific platforms, there is still no standard platform for kiosks, digital signage or other forms of information booths; a rapidly growing sector within the industry thanks to their revenue generating capabilities, and one that is being fuelled by developments in low cost display technologies.

As a result, many OEMs addressing these end applications may, in the past, have chosen a less specific and all together more familiar platform; an embedded PC running Windows XP.  The reasons are sound; it provides a readily available and familiar development environment, and represents a relatively cost effective platform for volume manufacturing.

But with the discontinued availability of Windows XP through the retail or system builder channels, the problem many OEMs now face is how to replace it.  This presents a difficult choice; remain with Windows or choose a different platform.  The ease and convenience of a Windows platform running on an embedded PC should not be underestimated and for this reason the choice may be obvious.  But if the choice is to remain a Microsoft customer, the question now becomes, which platform do I move to?

The decision to continue manufacturing an existing product on a different platform has inherent risk, but when the choice has essentially been made for you the key is to minimise your exposure to that risk.  The principal aim must be to keep the production lines rolling and to that end it is essential to make the transition to an alternative platform as simple as possible.

As a standard platform, applications running on Windows XP can be readily ported to a compatible platform in the Windows family.  However, the licensing costs associated with new Windows products aimed at desktop PCs may prove difficult to support with the margins available from a mature product targeting the retail market.

The correct solution here is to choose one of the embedded Windows products and in the past this would have been Windows XP Embedded.  Fortunately, while Microsoft has chosen to remove Windows XP from the market it has acknowledged the importance of Windows XP Embedded in the marketplace and has committed to its continued support for the foreseeable future, with a name change to Windows Embedded Standard.

So, the solution is simple, right?  Replace Windows XP with Windows Embedded Standard, which incidentally also carries a lower licensing fee than Windows XP.  In fact, for any new project, Windows Embedded Standard would be the obvious choice but for OEMs unfamiliar with Microsofts embedded products the process of moving a product from Windows XP to Windows Embedded Standard isnt quite straightforward.  Fundamentally, every build of Windows Embedded Standard is potentially unique; unlike the desktop variant, Windows Embedded Standard is componentised.  This means the platform must be created from over 12,000 individual software components, some of which are necessary and some of which are optional, depending on the application.  Selecting the right components for your application is crucial to its stability and that includes knowing which components to leave out of the build.

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