One of the most buzzed-about ideas in the electronics world today is the so-called internet of things (IoT).
The premise behind the IoT is that electronic household and workplace objects -- including printers, clocks, appliances, cleaning equipment, children's toys, and shop tools -- will one day all be internet connected. This opens the door to new e-commerce, advertising, and other business opportunities.
While such moneymaking opportunities may be as far off as the concept of IoT itself, top tech companies are increasingly embracing the notion that failing to plan for the IoT era is planning to fail in the IoT era. With that in mind, the world's largest maker of traditional personal computer operating systems -- Microsoft Corp. -- launched a project earlier this year to pare down Windows to a form suitable to running on low-power IoT hardware.
Dubbed the Windows Developer Program for IoT, the program has been limited to approved Windows developers who go through an application process. Now, it's shared an initial operating system build with enrolled developers.
Microsoft's first cut at Windows for the IoT age is a greatly pared down build of Windows 8.1, designed to run on Intel Atom Quark system-on-a-chip (SoCs) circuits. Quark offers a number of upsides for Microsoft. First, it's an x86 architecture. Second, it's 32-bits versus even lighter-weight microcontroller chips that are sometimes 8-bit or 16-bit. Microsoft had to make substantial changes to Windows 8.1 to allow it to run comfortably on the 400 MHz Quark chip and to add application protocol interfaces (APIs) to allow developers to carry out meaningful interactions with the "proof of concept" Windows port.
Unfortunately, this "non-commercial version of Windows 8.1" linked from Microsoft's Github bucket is not publicly available. It is currently only available to those that are approved to enroll in the IoT dev program. However, someone leaked the build in ZIP format to Kim Dotcom's encrypted filesharing service Mega (see this Beta Archive thread for more details).
It appears the build (Windows 9600.16384.x86 Windows Blue RTM IoT build 140731-1000 Galileo v1) weighs in at 174 MB. A typical Windows 8.1 installation consumes 3 GB of space, so this is nearly 1/20th the size of an average Windows 8.1 install. Boot time takes roughly 2 minutes, versus boot times of anywhere from 3 seconds to 30 seconds with Windows 8.1 on traditional computers.
The new Windows OS is designed to run on the Quark-powered Intel Galileo Gen. 1 hobbyist board. Amazon.com currently sells the board for $50 USD (with free shipping) while Fry's sells it for $60 USD (the Gen. 1 model is no longer available on Newegg.com).
Roughly the size of a credit card, this tiny handheld computer is similar to the Arduino (which it can interface with) or Raspberry Pi micro-computers. It includes an Atom Quark X1000 SoC, microSD card storage (on the underside of the board), 8 MB of internal NOR flash storage, 256 MB of DDR3 memory, a pinned power connector (capable of running off 3.3 volt and 5 volt power sources), and wired internet connectivity (10/100 Ethernet).
I/O expansion options include PCI Express, JTAG, RS-232 serial port, a single USB port, a 14-pin bank of digital I/O lines (of which 6 can act as pulse width modulated (PWM) outputs), and a six-pin bank of analog to digital inputs.
Currently, the RTM IoT version of Windows 8.1 is only compatible with the first generation Galileo board running v1.0.2 firmware. It is not compatible with the newer Intel Galileo Gen. 2 board, although Microsoft's Github page says it's in the process of adding support for that board.
In an interview with PC World, a Microsoft spokesperson stated:
Microsoft is also committed to supporting the currently available Galileo Gen 2 hardware with a future release. The preview Windows image [for Galileo Gen 1] is another opportunity for makers and developers to create, generate new ideas and provide feedback to help Microsoft continue making Windows even better on this class of device.
While it may be some time before this project amounts to anything useful, the lessons learned may be useful in increasing the base efficiency of Windows. And by preparing for the Internet of Things, Microsoft -- a key player in the embedded platform space -- effectively hedges its bets against future market trends.