Windows Embedded 8 Handheld Is the Future Choice for Ruggedized Handhelds
Microsoft has finally announced its plans for a successor to Windows Mobile: Windows Embedded 8 Handheld. Only select OEMs will be supported, challenging the market for greater consolidation.
- Windows Embedded 8 Handheld (WE8H) and its successor (likely Windows Embedded.next) will emerge as the most prominent rugged device platforms.
- Underlying platform transitions will force more ruggedized application development to be undertaken in HTML5.
- Restricted OEM licensing of WE8H will further push consolidation and downsizing of the ruggedized handheld industry, but will encourage a more sustainable market.
- Enterprises should plan to move off nonsupported Microsoft Windows Mobile to WE8H. Enterprises committing to WE8H must ensure that software can be easily migrated to Windows Embedded.next at the next hardware upgrade. OEMs not licensed for WE8H will need to transition from Windows Mobile to Android and concentrate on HTML5 development to avail their products of the largest array of software.
- Enterprises utilizing Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 (based on Windows CE 5.0) should transition applications to cross-platform tools and move to either WE8H or Windows Embedded.next.
Ruggedized handhelds is not a major market, but it is an important one. Such devices are used in warehouses, trucking and courier services, and in harsh working environments. For the past decade, the market has been based largely on Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform (which is based on the Windows Embedded Compact [Windows CE] kernel), Microsoft's previous attempt to capture the consumer handheld market. Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 (available since 2010 and identical to Windows Mobile 6.5, but offered with a longer support life cycle) and Windows CE were also in play. In the consumer market, Microsoft has moved on to Windows 8 for PCs and tablets, and to Windows Phone 8 for smartphones, leaving Windows Mobile an orphan. Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 will remain supported, but there will continue to be questions on the degree of Microsoft's focus on this platform. Microsoft has taken longer than two years to announce a successor, which has disconcerted many enterprises that need to plan a future direction. Table 1 shows Microsoft's support plans for these various versions.
Microsoft has announced WE8H as the successor to Windows Mobile and Windows Embedded Handheld for rugged devices. With WE8H, Microsoft has narrowed its OEM support to Motorola Solutions, Honeywell (including its recent acquisition, Intermec), Bluebird and Ingenico (mobile point of sale). Other vendors will likely focus on Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 and Windows CE or Android — both markets that will likely receive secondary support from traditional software application suppliers. We expect to see devices based on WE8H by summer 2013, but we don't expect widespread availability until late 2013. Full product line conversion will not occur until late 2014.
WE8H will become the primary solution set for the above OEMs. Since these OEMs command the largest share of the market, WE8H will dominate the ruggedized handheld market (the OEMs may also support Android on select devices). Enterprises that use ruggedized handhelds should now begin to plan the transition, which will involve modernizing software applications from the heavily text-based models to the graphical interface used by Windows Phone 8. New software investments should be based on HTML5, which will ensure an easier transition in the future to Windows Embedded.next (see Note 1) on these platforms (market needs will not permit OEMs to skip to this release). While a transition, enterprises that move to HTML5 will be more secure in their future. Since only Qualcomm ARM processors operating in a sandboxed file system are supported by WE8H, only Mobile Device Management tools can be used to manage devices. Existing tools for Windows Mobile and Windows Embedded Handheld will need to be adjusted for this new architecture, including consideration of the new Windows NT kernel, which replaces the Windows CE kernel in these previous products.
Source: Gartner (January 2013)
Windows Embedded 8 Handheld (WE8H) and its successor (likely Windows Embedded.next) will emerge as the most prominent rugged device platforms
Most ruggedized handhelds are based on Windows Mobile, which was introduced in the late 1990s, but quickly found a base in the ruggedized world as a replacement for DOS. DOS was not common across platforms and effectively was a unique implementation on each OEM. This meant that cross-platform application development was difficult, which, in turn, kept product prices high because the fragmented industry had poor volume leverage. Windows Mobile brought commonality and consumer reference designs, and the market benefited. However, for the past three years, Microsoft has made it clear that Windows Mobile is not the future, but it has provided no advice on what would follow.
Without direction, the market has made limited accommodation for Android because of its license-free cost, and because of its ability to be customized by each OEM using open source to support the unique features that this industry needs (for example, bar code scanning). However, Android produces an environment similar to DOS, albeit using more modern programming techniques. Each OEM will customize Android to its unique needs, and cross-platform application capabilities will decline, bringing back the growth-inhibiting challenges of the DOS era.
When there was no direction from Microsoft, Android was the better choice. However, since it is now known that WE8H is the future direction, and given that Microsoft will regulate key elements like peripheral support, WE8H has become the recommended choice for future ruggedized handhelds.
That said, WE8H is not a long-term product, although Microsoft will give it long-term support (at least five to 10 years). OEMs will also support any investment for lengthy periods, often mandated by their commitment to the government business. While WE8H is based on the Windows 8 kernel and can be classified as a redirector to calls in an expanded Win32/64 API set — both of which are long-term foundational elements of Windows — there will be changes in future versions. The biggest will be the changes made to Windows Embedded.next, the successor to Windows 8-based embedded products, which is due likely in 2014 or 2015. We believe that this platform will run across all Microsoft-supported endpoint devices. The user interface will not change and the programming languages will be transferrable, but it will likely require software to be recompiled. Our third impact below gives more direction on this issue.
- Enterprises should plan to move off unsupported Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 and earlier versions to WE8H. Purchased software vendors must be immediately contacted for their plans. While many ruggedized handhelds are kept in service for a long time, it will be increasingly difficult to get support, and vendors will quickly move to the new platform to capture new business. Plans should be made to redesign software to modern graphical interfaces, and with a higher degree of portability across platforms (for example, HTML5).
- Enterprises utilizing Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 or Windows CE should transition applications to cross-platform tools, and move to either WE8H or Windows Embedded.next. While Microsoft will support the Windows Embedded Handheld platform through the end of the decade, interest will wane as more applications are based on modern consumer designs. The only recommendation difference between this group and those on Windows Mobile is that this group has more time to complete the transition.
- Enterprises that deploy WE8H will have to design software that employs the active tile interface introduced in Windows Phone 7. Such change is important because software for ruggedized handhelds has lagged in design, primarily due to the longevity of these devices within their work environments. Redesign of applications is long overdue.
- Enterprises committing to WE8H must ensure that software can be easily migrated to Windows Embedded.next at the next hardware upgrade. When software is redone, it should be in a way that permits easier transitions to future platforms. Standards like HTML5, which support the simple forms that are part of most ruggedized handheld applications or cross-platform development tools (see "Magic Quadrant for Mobile Application Development Platforms"), are the best choices.
Underlying platform transitions will force more ruggedized application development to be undertaken in HTML5
More and more applications are being hosted in the browser. HTML5 provides for the browser to host applications that can be online and offline. However, WE8H is based on Windows 8 kernel, combined with increased performance in low-power processors, and this creates an obvious scenario in which Windows Phone 8, Windows and their embedded derivatives will be headed toward a common platform. The lack of certainty, plus the background of Android use by the non-WE8H OEMs, shows that the safe bet is to stay well above the operating system, and HTML5 accomplishes this. Cross-platform development tools can also accomplish this goal, and many of them are also moving toward HTML5. Microsoft will also support Visual Studio and the development languages C#, Silverlight and XAML for developers that wish to use more native tools, and feel that the risk of transitioning off Microsoft is relatively low — a position with which we agree.
- Applications for ruggedized handhelds should be prioritized on HTML5, except where legacy or performance issues are paramount. For forms and information-display-based applications, HTML5 will be the best choice for application development, and will ease the move to WE8H and its successors.
- Applications should isolate vendor-specific HTML5 extensions to ensure ease of porting software between vendors. Microsoft is planning to support standard peripherals — such as bar code readers (laser and imager), chip and PIN readers, magnetic stripe readers and receipt printers — with common developer-facing APIs; however, not everything will be under Microsoft's control. Because HTML5 is an incomplete specification and will not likely support special hardware or unique OEM capabilities, there will be extensions to HTML5 supplied by the OEMs. These should be localized within any application framework so that they can be easily located and modified, in case a vendor transition is required.
Restricted OEM licensing of WE8H will further push consolidation and downsizing of the ruggedized handheld industry, but will encourage a more sustainable market
In the past year, the ruggedized handheld industry has seen significant consolidation as the largest vendor, Motorola Solutions, purchased Psion, and Honeywell — which had previously acquired Metrologic Instruments, LXE and Hand Held Products — acquired the second largest vendor, Intermec. Microsoft has chosen to narrow its support for OEMs to Honeywell, Motorola Solutions, Bluebird and Ingenico. The other independent OEMs (such as Datalogic, the Hoeft & Wessel Group, and so on) will likely have to adopt Android, or stay with Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 or Windows CE. If our conclusion that WE8H and its successors will dominate this market should prove to be accurate, then the other vendors will be at a disadvantage, and will likely need to combine to provide market capability to attract Microsoft's attention. Bluebird could be a potential acquirer, since Motorola and Honeywell have much to do to process their current acquisitions.
We have considered the potential that the market could split between Android and WE8H. However, we do not believe this will happen because the ruggedized handheld market isn't a large environment, and it often requires specialized peripherals from vendors that have limited resources. Such constraints will limit the flexibility of vendors that must support the market, and they will likely choose WE8H as their first priority. Here's the key trade-off: Although Android peripheral support by the OEMs permits optimal utilization of the device's feature set, Microsoft will provide support through standard platform-based control panels, and this will help save scarce resources and hasten the time to market. The OEM Android approach will create lock-in because the peripheral support will be unique to each OEM. Also, buyers can source products from multiple suppliers without any change in code when using WE8H.
- OEMs that are not licensed for WE8H will need to transition from Windows Mobile to Android and concentrate on HTML5 development to avail their products of the largest array of software. OEMs that support Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 today can continue to support the platform, but market support will decline rapidly after about three years.
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Today, the Microsoft Windows Embedded product list can be found at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsembedded/en-us/evaluate/what-is-windows-embedded.aspx.
In this research, we also refer to Windows Embedded.next. While Microsoft has made no statement about such a product, we believe that a Windows version that converges the smartphone, tablet, notebook and PC platforms will be delivered to the commercial market in 2014 or 2015. This should be followed by an Embedded version within 12 months of the commercial release. Embedded.next ruggedized handhelds and other forms of ruggedized endpoints will be supported by a single operating system.
WE8H and Windows Embedded 8 are on the same kernel, so convergence has already begun. Windows now supports ARM and x86 architectures, so the silicon foundation is there to support further convergence. Once the commercial platforms are converged, the embedded versions should follow.