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Microsoft licenses WinCE source code for commercial use

But is it any more appealing to the embedded market?

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Pocket PC manufacturers will now be able to tailor their system software to better differentiate their products, after Microsoft today said it would allow Windows CE licensees access to the OS' source code.

Microsoft's move isn't philanthropic, of course. It's intended to help WinCE better compete with embedded Linux, not to mention head off any future allegations of monopolistic behaviour.

Microsoft's move isn't exactly revolutionary either - Palm has been doing this for ages in the PDA arena, and real-time OS vendor QNX in the embedded space. And Microsoft already shares its Windows CE source code for non-commercial uses.

Under the WinCE Shared Source Premium Licensing Program (WCESSPLP), OEMs, silicon makers and systems integrators will gain "full access to Windows CE source code. All licensees will be able to modify the code, and OEMs now can commercially distribute those modifications in Windows CE-based devices", says Microsoft. The deal doesn't cover the bits of Pocket PC that sit on top of WinCE.

That will help the likes of Samsung and Hitachi, who have got with the Program, differentiate their Pocket PC products from very similar units from HP, Toshiba et al, who haven't yet joined. We're sure in due course they all will. Why not? It doesn't cost anything above their existing WinCE licence.

Companies like these, facing real commercial imperatives, are far likely to take the time to understand and modify the source code than any number of non-commercial users. For Microsoft, that's a win-win situation. Hardware makers will fix the failings of the operating system and extend its feature set, and while they won't share the results (where would be the differentiator if they did?), together they will improve the reputation of the OS without MS having to do a stroke of work.

In the end, though, it's not really the Pocket PC sector that matters - for all it's the source of WCESSPLP's first supporters. The PDA is no more an embedded application than the PC, and Microsoft's move it geared more toward consumer electronics kit, cellphones and other devices of the kind where the user doesn't necessarily realise there's an operating system ticking away inside the box.

It's here that manufacturers really need the freedom to customise the system software to meet specific needs, a freedom granted by Linux and now by WinCE. And the terms of the WinCE licence, so far as Microsoft has revealed it, doesn't require commmercially minded software developers to submit the changes they make.

Of course, whether developers will choose to use WinCE is another matter. The OS hasn't been a spectacular success outside Pocket PC (which is why Microsoft has only been able to recruit Pocket PC makers to WCESSPLP so far) - and not just because WinCE's source has been inaccessible. ®

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