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February 24, 2010

Windows Mobile and the vertical markets

While Windows Mobile pretty much has ceased to be a factor in consumer markets, it remains very firmly entrenched in industrial and vertical markets where it may have a market share that's probably larger than that of Windows in desktops and notebooks. The good news is that as long as Microsoft continues to dominate the desktop, the leverage of Windows programming tools and expertise will probably all but guarantee a continuing role for Windows CE and Windows Mobile. That said, the rapid vanishing act of Windows Mobile in the consumer markets simply must be disconcerting to those whose business depends on Windows Mobile.

I won't go into the long and checkered history of Windows CE here, nor into Microsoft's bewildering meandering with nomenclature or the disruptive inconsistency and frequent course changes. It all has become an almost impenetrable mess even for longtime followers of Microsoft's smallest OS. Unfortunately, Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's latest knee jerk reaction to a changing smartphone market that has essentially relegated Windows Mobile into insignificance, casts more doubt and shadows on Windows Mobile than ever.

While in the real world, the one where manufacturers make and sell rugged mobile products, we continue to see Windows CE 5.0/6.0 and Windows Mobile 6 and 6.1, in the hype and announcement world, Microsoft has announced Windows Phone 7 OS, a trendy me-too music player interface trying to leverage the floundering Zune music player platform while copying iPhone and social networking concepts. It's hard to see how Windows Phone 7 could make a dent into the smartphone market, and it is most certainly not the future in commercial and vertical markets.

So where does that leave vertical markets who probably aren't thrilled at the prospect of being stuck with an increasingly obsolete Microsoft mini OS? Not in a very good position. Let's face it, the odd Windows Mobile 6.5 interface is essentially unsuitable for vertical markets. And now that Microsoft, scrambling to remain relevant in the mobile market, is putting its eggs into the projected capacitive (multi) touch basket, it's hard to see how any of the older versions of Windows CE/Windows Mobile (which is now renamed to "Windows Mobile Classic") may benefit from the Windows Phone 7 OS. Yet, something with "7" in it must happen to at least give the impression that Windows Mobile is moving forward (and to benefit from the relative shine of Windows 7).

So we have a situation where only last year, Microsoft's entertainment and devices division president Robbie Bach waxed enthusiastically about WinMo 6.5 ("It will give you access to more websites than you will be able to get to on an iPhone that will work actively and work well. It really is a much better experience.") and now the future of 6.5 already seems quite uncertain.

Personally, I think what may happen is that Microsoft will quietly integrate Windows CE/Mobile into its Windows Embedded Products business. That area already includes Windows Embedded CE in addition to Windows Embedded Standard, Windows Embedded Enterprise, Windows Embedded POSReady, Windows Embedded Server, Windows Embedded NavReady, and so on. The stated purpose of Windows Embedded CE is to "develop small footprint devices with a componentized, real-time operating system. Used in a wide array of devices, including portable navigation and communications devices." That makes sense.

One problem with this approach is that one part of the appeal of Windows CE/Windows Mobile was always that people were already familiar with its look and feel. Today, that look and feel is ancient, just as are the very visible underpinnings of Windows CE that essentially date back to the last millennium. And with Windows Mobile Pocket PCs gone and Windows Mobile phones irrelevant, that part of the leverage is gone as well. A new interface approach is sorely needed, but if Windows Mobile 6.5 and Windows Phone 7 are any indication, Microsoft's thrust is in the Zune player and social networking arena.

So what will the small but significant number of vendors who make and sell Windows Mobile devices do as their chosen operating system platform looks increasingly dated and is becoming a target of customer dissatisfaction? That's a good question. You can never count Microsoft out, but after all the fumbling with their mobile OS over the years, hopes for a cohesive, logical and compelling direction for Windows Mobile seem optimistic.

Posted by conradb212 at 07:45 PM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2010

A look at Intel's new Core i3/i5/i7 processors and how they will affect rugged computing

Just when most manufacturers of rugged mobile computers have switched from earlier platforms either to Intel Atom or Core processors, Intel raises the ante again with new Atoms and the next generation of Core processors. In essence, the Core 2 Duo that has served the mobile community long and well is being replaced by a next generation of mobile chips with higher performance, newer technology, better integration, improved efficiency, and smaller package sizes.

The new Intel Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 processors come in numerous versions with two or four cores, clock speeds ranging from 1.06 to 3.33 GHz, maximum power dissipation of 18 to 95 watts, different process technologies, different degrees of integration and different complementing chipsets.

Unfortunately, while the difference between Intel's older Core 2 Solo and Core 2 Duo processors was pretty obvious, differentiating between the Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 chips can quite confusing. As a rule of thumb, the 3/5/7 sort of represent Intel's "good," "better," and "best" processor solutions in any given category just like BMW makes 3, 5, and 7 series cars (though the analogy only loosely applies). Core i3 processors, for example, do not have the Intel TurboBoost feature that provides extra performance via automatic overclocking and seems more than just a marketing feature. Core i7 processors generally have more cache and support more of the special Intel features and technologies than Core i5 and Core i3 processors. There is, however, more than a bit of overlap in functionality and performance, and figuring out which one is best suited for a task won't be simple.

As of February 2010, Intel has announced about three dozen of the new Core i3/i5/i7 processors. About a third of them are designated as embedded processors, which makes them especially interesting for for embedded systems designers due to considerations such as package size, structural integrity, error correcting code memory, system uptime as well as, and perhaps most importantly, an 7-year extended life cycle.

Intel has always had an excessive fondness of code names, and it's no different with the new Core processors. It's therefore useful to know that Intel distinguishes between generally desktop-oriented "Piketon" platforms that use either two core 32nm "Clarkdale" processors or four core 45nm "Lynnfield" processors (and usually have TDPs that makes them unsuitable for most mobile applications), and mobile "Calpella" platforms that use two core 32nm "Arrandale" processors with lower thermal design powers (generally 18 to 35 watts).

So let's take a quick look at Calpella and Piketon.

In essence, "Calpella" is Intel's new "low power" platform, though there is now a much sharper differentiation between the really low power Atoms and the low power but rather high performance new Core processors. The Calpella class "Arrandale" CPUs are based on the latest 32nm lithography. They are are essentially the successors of the mobile Core 2 Duo CPUs and come in standard, low voltage, and ultra low voltage versions at various processor clock speeds.

There are, however, some interesting differences: As a first in this class of Intel CPUs, the memory controller and reasonably powerful integrated graphics with HD hardware acceleration and other new capabilities are now part of the processor, which means no more conventional Front Side Bus and "Northbridge" part of the chipset complementing the processor. These integrated graphics can be turned off when they are not needed, and Nvidia (who is probably not that thrilled about this Intel move) has already announced their "Optimus" technology (see what it is) that automatically determines whether to use the integrated graphics and extend battery life, or use an external NVIDIA GPU to boost graphics.

Like the Core 2 Duos, "Arrandale" processors have two cores but the new chips use Intel's HyperThreading technology that act like virtual cores, making the operating system think it is dealing with four cores. The new chips also add L3 cache while the Core 2 Duo chips only had L1 and L2 cache. They require DDR3 RAM that supports higher speeds (up to 1,333MHz). An interesting new technology is Intel "TurboBoost" that automatically steps up processor core speed if it detects that the CPU is operating below certain power, current, and temperature limits.

The new embedded Intel Core i5/i7 processors range from ultra low voltage models with a base clock frequency of 1.06GHz and a Thermal Design Power of 18 watts to low voltage models with base clock frequency up to 2.0 GHz and TDPs of 25 watts, and standard voltage models with base clock frequencies as high as 2.66GHz and 35 watt DTP. This means they're suitable primarily for higher end, high performance rugged notebooks and tablets, but not for lower end systems that require the still significantly lower power draw of Atom-based prcessor technology (or emerging alternate solutions such as the Nvidia Tegra).

"Piketon"-class processors also include a variety of Intel's new Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 CPUs but unlike the "Arrandale" versions they are mostly standard voltage, higher-powered chips that include both older 45nm technology "Lynnfield" versions of the chips (four cores but no integrated graphics) as well as newer 32nm "Clarkdale" versions with two cores and integrated graphics. These are performance-oriented processors with TDP ratings of 73 to 95 watts and thus unsuitable for most mobile applications.

What about performance? We haven't had a chance at benchmarking any rugged systems with the new processors yet. Intel and other benchmarks of all new Core processors suggest a hefty 30-60% performance increase over equivalent Core 2 Duo processors at roughly the same TDP levels. Literature and previews also suggest that the performance of the integrated graphics processor is improved by perhaps about 50% over that of the predecessor GM45 platform. There is also said to be better 3D performance, high definition video hardware acceleration, audio and other advancements.

It should be interesting to see who is first in making the new i5/i7 chips available and how they'll work out in rugged systems.

For a comparison table of all Intel Core i3/i5/i7 released through January 2010, see here.

Posted by conradb212 at 06:22 PM | Comments (0)