There are plenty of rumors about Microsoft coming out with a smartwatch or a fitness band, but Microsoft's interest in the Internet of Things is much bigger than that.
When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talks about the ambient computing that will come from billions of sensors all around us, he isn't just interested in having customers collect sensor data with the Azure Intelligent Systems Service or in the big data analysis and machine learning you can do with Microsoft cloud tools like Power BI and Azure ML, or even commercial versions of the sensor-driven building management system Microsoft created for its own campus.
There's certainly an opportunity there. Azure IIS is currently in private beta with enterprise and commercial developers building large infrastructure projects. And the IIS team built their own version of the campus building services system, to track how much electricity each building was using. "One building was using an awesome amount of electricity; so much electricity that we thought there must be a problem in the data," Pranish Kumar of the Microsoft IoT told CiteWorld. In fact, it turned out that the heaters in the parking garage that were supposed to turn on during the coldest months of the year were running all the time.
"You couldn't see it by looking at a chart of the data; the curve looked reasonable but the base was too high and you would only notice when you compared all the buildings." The $600,000 Microsoft saved by turning off the heaters is the kind of low hanging fruit that IoT sensors and analytics are good at detecting. Kumar calls it "the Internet of your things; you have a set of devices with sensors and data you're collecting. It's a brownfield opportunity."
But Microsoft also wants Windows to be a platform developers build those Internet-connected Things with - and for a much wider audience than Microsoft's traditional enterprise developers.
Despite decades of experience in embedded systems (everything from Point of Sale terminals to exercise machines to medical imaging systems and factory control devices run on embedded versions of Windows), most IoT developers are thinking in terms of Raspberry Pi and Arduino rather than Windows for their devices. That's why Kumar is just back from Maker Fair in Rome, as part of Microsoft's attempt to reach out to the makers.
"We think there's value in bringing Windows to that community," Kumar maintains. "They're building things that are trying to solve similar problems."
Making makers think of Windows
Because that community hasn't naturally thought of Windows for IoT already, the team is trying something different from the standard Microsoft approach, says Microsoft's Tony Goodhew. There have been internal changes, bringing the automotive, embedded and phone teams together in the operating systems group. "We're creating a single team so all these diverse things have a coherent offering all the way across from the top end to the maker space and we deliver the right version of Windows that customers need for each of those areas."
"Our job is not to bring makers to Windows; this is about bringing Windows to makers. We have to make sure we have the right set of software on the right devices to make Windows attractive for making the devices they're doing. One of the key things we did was implement Arduino wiring and the additional wiring API work we've done for the second generation Galileo board builds even broader support. The beauty of the maker space and part of this desire to bring Windows to them is all these different boards have different problems they solve for you."
That support means you can plug in common Arduino prototyping shields and make them work with Windows. "It's part of our thinking about how to bring the best IoT technologies to Windows. There's an explosion of useful shields and the costs are coming down. We want to tie that together with the value of Windows," says Kumar.
For Kumar, that value is about what Windows already does, the number of peripherals it works with and the way that could simplify building IoT devices - just because it's Windows. "There's a great ecosystem," he points out. "There are a ton of these incredible peripherals that Windows brings that just work; you can get a Wi-Fi shield and find the code for it - or you can just hook it into Windows over USB and it just works and it's a tenth of the cost. You're not spending all day working out how you connect the sensors to the platform."
Goodhew says makers appreciate that already. "They love that the offering is full-blown, headless Windows, that has Arduino wiring - and has Visual Studio as a tool. "I'm at work; I can stop building apps and I can start building feeds [from devices]."
The old arguments over whether Windows is real-time enough for embedded work doesn't really apply, especially not with the move to more modern control systems.
"There are some hard real-time systems, but they're few and far between," Kumar points out. "Almost everyone who thinks they want real time actually wants fast - unless you have a turbine or a nuclear system where you're going to spend three years computing interrupt latencies. Unless you're in that category of people, Windows as an operating system can do a lot of things like offloading to GPU, so it hits a wider range of devices than people might expect."
The cost of a Windows board like the Intel Galileo or the MinnowBoard MAX isn't a problem either. Yes, you can buy a Raspberry Pi for $35 (or probably a lot less if you're ordering in bulk), compared to $299 for the Sharks Cover development board that Microsoft and Intel worked on together (even more so if you add in the full IO options).
But Goodhew suggests what it really compares with is the $5,000 hardware developers would previously spend on each custom-made prototype board. "Now I can wait and spend that $5,000 on my second generation prototype and I've saved 40 percent on my prototyping costs."
This is for the kind of customer that wants to put together a specific device. "Say I think there is a market for a better interface to do something in a hotel room. I go out and grab a bunch of sensors I think might be relevant and I build a prototype. I want to know does the idea work, do people like it? And I can do it with off the shelf components for a minimal price, when you used to have to go to Taiwan and manufacture a million things before you got economies of scale."
Windows for IoT might be a good tool for hobbyist hardware hackers making their own devices, but the big opportunity is for the professionals who now want to build hardware the way they already build software.
This story, "Why Would You Want Windows for IoT Anyway?" was originally published by CITEworld.