November 2000 | Commentary | IT Matters

Getting On Board with Windows CE

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Although on-board computers have been used in the transportation and logistics industry for more than a decade, most have been single-function proprietary devices that users could not customize. Now, multi-function, open-systems devices are available that operate all applications, are user programmable, and can be connected to corporate data networks with widely used protocols.

Industries such as trucking and public safety are embracing this technology to improve safety, efficiency and productivity.

Until recently, open systems referred to a device that was based on an Intel microprocessor with a Microsoft operating system, either MS-DOS or Windows. The past year has seen a growth of open systems led by Internet protocols and Java, both of which are network-driven rather than desktop-driven. These new open systems are ideally suited for the new genre of "thin clients," such as mobile devices. On-board computers that are compliant with these new open systems allow network communication standards to be lower in cost (you don't need resources to run Windows 95 or NT), more reliable (no hard disk drive), and customizable.

Many operating systems support Internet protocols and Java applets. One is Microsoft's Windows CE. Windows CE is modular enough to be used for many mobile and thin-client applications such as the Auto PC, Palm PC, and TV set top boxes. Windows CE can include Pocket Internet Explorer with secure sockets, can run Java applets, and can support the SMTP e-mail standard.

Windows CE has evolved from a series of mobile operating systems developed by Microsoft. Judging by industry acceptance of Windows CE, Microsoft finally got it right! Two technical features distinguish mobile operating systems from desktop operating systems: they are real time and embedded. Real time means that any activity the operating system performs will be completed quickly and in a known amount of time. Embedded refers to the compact size of the operating systems and that they run from solid state memory.

The Dominant System

Many operating systems fit both these criteria, but none have captured dominant market share. Backed by Microsoft's marketing clout, deep pockets and large third-party software developer base, Windows CE is rapidly becoming the dominant mobile operating system for vertical industrial applications.

A benefit of real-time and embedded mobile operating systems is that they do not require the latest microprocessor technology to operate effectively. Windows CE can run on microprocessors from Hitachi, Motorola, NEC, Phillips, and Intel. Windows CE can fit into 2 Mbytes and requires as little as 4 Mbytes of RAM.

Beginning with version 2.1, Windows CE will diverge into two distinct camps: (1) the "branded" derivatives such as companion PCs and home entertainment devices, and (2) embedded, customized versions developed by third-party vendors. The Windows CE operating system core will be common among the two camps, but the Graphical User Interface (GUI) will differ. The companion PCs will have GUIs developed by Microsoft. Any third-party applications written for these companion PCs will have to conform to Microsoft guidelines, much like Windows 95 and NT today.

Custom-embedded PCs will have GUIs tailored for specific applications, such as on-board computers for trucks and public safety vehicles. A system can be designed to incorporate voice recognition, GPS, mobile data radio, touchscreen for interfacing, and connection to handheld devices for bar-code and signature capture. When using on-board computers for trucking applications, companies are able to link mobile employees directly to the corporate network. Companies can reap numerous benefits, including optimizing equipment, drivers and fuel; verifying delivery; tracking cargo in transit; maximizing operating margins; and reducing driver turnover by allowing the driver to feel "connected" to the company.

Companies can improve efficiency and productivity with on-board computers without making a huge capital investment. Soon, implementing on-board computers based on embedded Windows CE will become increasingly popular in trucking and many other industries.

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