Microsoft is expanding a program that provides access to the source code for its Windows CE .Net operating system, allowing device manufacturers, chip makers and systems integrators to make modifications to the code that can be used in commercial products, the company said Wednesday.
Windows CE .Net is an embedded operating system for use in devices such as handheld computers, smart phones, voice-over-IP phones and industrial automation equipment. It has even been used in a futuristic digital sewing machine displayed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year.
Under its existing shared source program, Microsoft's partners in the embedded space could view a portion of the Windows CE .Net source code for debugging purposes or to help them understand the operating system's internal workings, but they were not permitted to modify the code for use in commercial products.
Under the program announced Tuesday, called the Windows CE Shared Source Premium Licensing Program, or CEP, device makers have access to virtually all of the operating system's source code and can modify it for use in commercial products. That should allow them to tailor the software more closely to their needs and help them build more "differentiated" products, said Scott Horn, a Microsoft director of marketing.
"Some of our commercial partners said (they'd) like access to more of the source code to do more innovative things, and (that they'd) like to be able to make modifications for commercial purposes," he said.
Having access to more of the source code also lets vendors provide Microsoft with "more informed and accurate" suggestions about how it could improve the operating system, he said.
Microsoft is treading somewhat cautiously with the expanded program. It does not yet apply to its Windows Powered Smartphone and Pocket PC operating systems, even though those platforms are based on Windows CE, Horn said. That means Hewlett-Packard, for example, can't modify the Microsoft operating software used in its iPaq computer.
Microsoft could potentially expand the program to include other operating systems in the future but has no current plans to do so, Horn said. The company wants to ensure that applications written for one Pocket PC or Smartphone device work on devices from other vendors, he said, which is easier to ensure when vendors aren't modifying Microsoft's software. In most embedded markets that type of cross-device compatibility is less important, he said.
"For the embedded market, having access to things like the kernel and device drivers is critical. Also, you don't really see the need for broad applications compatibility across a broad range of devices. Applications tend to be more specific. That's one of the reasons we've been able to move forward very aggressively with the CE platform," Horn said.
ARM, BSquare, Hitachi, Mitsubishi Electric, MIPS Technologies and Samsung Electronics are already taking part in the program, and Microsoft hopes to attract other vendors and systems integrators, the company said in a statement. Hitachi has already modified Windows CE .Net for use in its Net-PDA product.
"Net-PDA used a unique screen display, and they wanted to modify the applications we provided to work with that screen," Horn said.
Microsoft launched its shared source initiative in July 2001. Some industry watchers saw it as a defensive response to momentum gathering behind the open source model of software development. With open source software, the source code is made available freely and developers can modify it for use in commercial products, so long as they make those changes available for use by others.
Microsoft doesn't distribute the source code to its products as widely or as freely. Under the existing Windows CE program, which will continue to exist alongside CEP, academics, hobbyists and other enthusiasts can view a portion of the operating system's source code. Only its partners in the CEP program have access to all of the operating system source code.
In addition, unlike the open source model, Microsoft doesn't require its partners to make public any modifications and improvements they make to its software.
"Our philosophy says that shared-source code access is a good thing, but that source code access should enable the IP (intellectual property) owner to maintain their rights to their IP. We think that's essential for a healthy competitive ecosystem," Horn said.
More information on Microsoft's shared source programs is at http://www.microsoft.com/licensing/sharedsource/.