Hoping to cover all its bases in the emerging Internet-of-Things market, Microsoft is proffering a helping hand to "makers", DIYers, hardware hackers and other builders of things that may one day end up on the Internet.
Microsoft is shipping a pared-down version of Windows on an Intel Galileo development board in hopes of extending Windows' reach further into smart devices and Internet-connected appliances.
Software developers and hardware hackers will use the board, Microsoft hopes, to build and test new devices, some of which may end up as commercial products. The development board will also acquaint developers and engineers with the benefits of using Windows to build portable devices and gadgets.
The development kit is part of Microsoft's larger plan to grab some market share in the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), where data-collecting instruments gather real-time information and transmit it for alerts or analysis.
Microsoft has long catered to equipment manufacturers with Windows Embedded Compact, which is used in a range of industrial devices, mobile handsets, health monitors, ATMs and other devices. The company is making sure these manufacturers know its embedded OS can also work for their IoT devices as well.
But Microsoft is hoping that this new development board will introduce Windows to another set of potential IoT device creators: the independent developers working in their garages, the so-called maker community.
Microsoft first showed Galileo and the experimental Microsoft software during the Build conference at April. The board, embedded in a piano, ran an app that could play a melody on the piano, or capture the notes someone played on the piano and convey them to an Azure cloud service.
The ultimate goal of such efforts is to take information collected from billions of devices and feed it into cloud services powered by Azure. It's part of Microsoft's overall "mobile first, cloud first" strategy.
"What's so great about this Internet of Things is that it's not just about the thing, it's also about the fact that they're connected to the Internet. And so this Windows application on the device is feeding all of this telemetry and data back to an Azure data service," said Terry Myerson, executive vice president of the operating systems group at Microsoft, during a keynote at the Build conference.
The Galileo computer, which is an unenclosed circuit board, is targeted at a group of do-it-yourself enthusiasts that make innovative electronics. Little larger than a credit card, the board has been used to make devices such as candy-distributing robots, lighting systems and health devices connected to tablets, smartphones and the Internet.
Galileo competes with the popular $25 Raspberry Pi open-source PC, which has been used in robots, Bitcoin ATMs, communication systems and home media centers.
Microsoft is shipping the board as part of a Windows Developer Program for IoT. The recipients of the board appear to be carefully selected, and not everyone who applies succeeds in getting in to the program at this point. But developers can still apply for the board through Microsoft's website.
"We've been overwhelmed by the public response and we've already received more requests for kits than we have inventory for this first round," Microsoft said on a GitHub website for the IoT developer program.
Though Microsoft declined to comment on the types of devices it is targeting, it provided possible clues on GitHub's frequently asked questions page.
"We're surrounded by all kinds of smart devices. Cars and parking meters and microwaves and watches. But for years, it's been difficult to get started making your own devices. On your desk, in your home, in your garage," Microsoft said, adding that boards have made it easier to take on do-it-yourself projects.
The board runs a "small version" of Windows, according to notes published by Microsoft on GitHub. Microsoft declined to comment on the exact version, but on GitHub said it's pre-release software that the company just calls "Windows." The OS is compatible with Arduino, a popular software and hardware development platform designed to enable the to creation of small electronics and connected devices.
The preview Windows image running on the Galileo for IoT toolkit "is a custom non-commercial version of Windows based on Windows 8.1," a Microsoft spokeswoman said in an email.
The proof-of-concept OS is in its early stages, and there are no set rules yet on hardware requirements, the spokeswoman said.
"We simply chose to target Intel's Galileo board with a pilot project designed to bring a preview image based on the latest Windows OS to low cost, low power devices," the spokeswoman said.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is stressing that Windows Embedded Compact is still an important part of its product range. Windows Embedded Compact is a full featured OS supporting commercial devices, the spokeswoman said.
"Windows Embedded Compact remains an important part of our broad IoT offering. It remains Microsoft's only real-time operating system and is the operating system with the broadest set of ports including numerous levels of ARM and x86 architectures," Microsoft said on GitHub.
Nevertheless, questions remain about how precisely the new OS will be different than Windows Embedded Compact.
The new OS "may be a more modern, or possibly a more application-specific product (intended for IoT type use)" than Windows Embedded Compact, said Al Gillen, program vice president, servers and system software, for IDC, in an email.
Microsoft "rightfully sees IoT devices as being a huge opportunity, both in terms of selling the embedded solutions that power those IoT devices, and to make sure the IoT devices connect and pass their data back to a Windows Server on the back end," Gillen said.
Microsoft has published open-source development tools for Galileo on GitHub. There are examples on the site of how to make a thermal sensor, piano and LED lighting system via specialized ports on the board.
Intel also sells Galileo boards with a lightweight version of Linux through distributors. But the Windows OS is only available through boards distributed by Microsoft, Intel said.
Microsoft will ultimately make the OS available for anyone who buys the Galileo board, though the company did not provide a timeframe.
"We will have a plan for you. Keep track of our social networking sites for an announcement," Microsoft said on a GitHub page targeted at those who already own a Galileo board.
Galileo originally shipped last year, but Intel has since announced a second version of the board called Galileo Gen2, which will become available this month. Intel did not comment on whether Galileo Gen2 will be compatible with the new Windows software, saying it would be up to Microsoft to make that happen.
Microsoft recently started taking orders for another US$299 development board called Sharks Cove, which has a more power-consuming Intel chip and is designed more for writing drivers than for developing small devices.
The original Galileo board has a 400MHz Quark SoC X1000 processor, and supports PCI-Express, Ethernet and USB 2.0. It also has a range of ports to attach cameras, displays, sensors, power arrays and other components.