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Microsoft has teamed up with Make: Online to develop a series of embedded projects that make use of Windows Embedded CE, Visual Studio 2005 Pro, and third-party embedded hardware. We’ve brought our pal Kipp Bradford on-board to create three Windows Embedded-based projects and to document them, here on Make: Online and on Microsoft’s SPARK Your Imagination website.

For those who may be unaware of SPARK, it’s an MS campaign and series of contests designed to introduce students, hobbyists, and others to Windows Embedded CE and its use in “minimalist computers” and embedded systems. Microsoft has partnered with a number of hardware vendors, including VIA, Advantech, and Special Computing to provide special hardware kits. Buy an embedded device kit from one of these vendors and you get full versions of Windows Embedded CE 6.0 R2 and Visual Studio 2005 Professional for free.

For the first project, Kipp will be building a “smart home” automation system using Windows Embedded CE and the VIA ARTiGO A1000 Pico-ITX Builder Kit. He provides some background, on himself and the project:

My first home-built embedded project involved programming a Microchip PIC 16C73, using assembly code to control a stepper motor for a robotic stereo vision camera mount. I had limited experience modifying FORTH and C code on the trusty 6811, but it was truly exciting to machine the mounts and control linkages, design and build circuit boards, write embedded code, and write PC software. Unfortunately, I was in college, all of this work was done outside of my classes, and it truly took a significant amount of time that might have been better spent studying.

I did eventually complete the build and the accompanying electronics and software. Most of the projects I work on today require the same skills and combine the same basic elements: an embedded device receiving input from a user or sensors and generating an output.

Much has changed in the fifteen years since that project. Moore’s Law has made a significant impact on computational power while processors have become more energy efficient. On-chip peripherals now include USB, I2C, SPI, A/D, D/A, UART, etc. More importantly, customer’s expectations have changed. There is increasing pressure on developers to deliver complex user interfaces and feature-rich products nearly overnight. Software tool vendors responded by converting innovations developed for rapid application development on a desktop computer into versions better suited for the latest embedded hardware.

One very prominent tool is Windows Embedded CE. I remember thinking how cool it would be to take my Visual C code and recompile it to run on some little box inside a robot. As with my stereo vision project, I had no legitimate reason to run Windows in an embedded environment other than I thought it would be an interesting project, and as I quickly found out, Windows CE (as it was called at the time), was not the answer I was looking for. I felt like I would need a comprehensive knowledge of the Windows CE libraries to make anything useful happen with my projects, and I really didn’t know where to start with the tools. I noticed that other hobbyists faced similar challenges, so I gave up and looked for other solutions.

I was recently asked by MAKE to take a second look at the new Windows Embedded CE and to explore the product from a hobbyist’s perspective. With that in mind, I’ll be working on three projects using some exciting new embedded computer systems. The first project will involve creating a “dashboard” for an award-winning ultra-high efficiency building in Providence, Rhode Island. The dashboard will run on a VIA Pico-ITX. I will be covering the process of designing and buildingthis project, and the ins and outs of getting started with Windows Embedded CE, in the coming series of posts. Stay tuned…

Our new Make: Online author and technical editor, Kipp Bradford, is a technology consultant and entrepreneur. He’s developed electromechanical devices ranging from research instrumentation, consumer products, medical devices, and “mission critical” systems. Kipp may admit to inventing hundreds of toys for Hasbro and Mattel, but he’s unlikely to tell you which ones. Kipp is also an Adjunct Lecturer in Engineering at Brown University, where he teaches several engineering design and entrepreneurship courses. Additionally, he serves on the boards of two art non-profits, AS220 and The Steel Yard, in Providence, RI.

Starting next week, Kipp will be reporting on his progress, both here and on the SPARK Your Imagination website, in putting together this automation system using these tools.

Here’s the link to the SPARK website.


This SPARK Your Imagination Make: Windows Embedded project series is sponsored by Microsoft Corporation.

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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Comments

  1. Steve Noyce says:

    Was just looking at this with interest, as a C# developer it looked interesting but just looked at the “cost price” hardware linked from the microsoft spark site and it occurs to me why would you mess around with windows embedded when you can buy an older eeepc for less money complete with standard interfaces (usb etc) or am i missing something.

  2. Robert says:

    “This SPARK Your Imagination Make: Windows Embedded project series is sponsored by Microsoft Corporation.”

    Like we couldn’t tell.

    “I remember thinking how cool it would be to take my Visual C code and recompile it to run on some little box inside a robot.”

    Most of us just take our (“gcc”) C/C++ code and recompile it to run on AVRs, MSP430s, MIPSs, ARMs, Blackfins or a myriad of other far more suitable pieces of hardware that MS will never support.

    And – hold on – you think it’s cool that you can take ‘PC’ software and run it on what’s really a small PC?

    1. Sam says:

      Robert:

      Whilst I’m no fan of Microsoft, Windows Embedded CE (prn. “Wince”) is not anything like ordinary Windows under the hood. CE supports x86, MIPS and ARM architectures (and SuperH) – all of the major “PocketPC” cpu architectures. CE will never run on vanilla AVR, but neither will any other large monolithic kernel real-time OS (AVR32 is another matter).

      1. Robert says:

        I’m fully aware of this. But I really meant small ARM and MIPS processors (Cortex M series, ARM7TDMI, several K of RAM…) which wouldn’t end up being massive overkill. (You can still run some Free RTOSs on them though)

        Besides, I seriously doubt the ‘free’ edition they are offering supports anything other than x86.

  3. HeyNonNon says:

    It took years for me to divest myself of Microsoft and Windows, personally and professionally, the first time around. I’d rather use technologies to which everyone has easy access.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Have you ever looked into how much it costs to use Windows CE? It is unbelievably expensive and a completely ridiculous choice for the hobbiest, let alone most corporations. Why bother investigating Win CE when you will never be able to use it?

  5. Jake says:

    I died a little inside when I read this – MAKE shilling for MS. There really are far more appropriate and inexpensive and open options.

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      We won’t be shilling for them. They actually told us they want an honest assessment. And we hired Kipp to do just that (and we would never take on anything like this unless the sponsor gave us full editorial control over the content). He’ll be covering both the positive and the negative aspects of using this solution in the hobby, non-commercial context.

      And the real point of this project is just to raise awareness of the SPARK campaign and the free Windows CE Embedded and Visual Studio 2005 Pro they’re offering to hobbyists.

      @Steve Noyce raises a really good point. With netbooks and such costing so little, when does it make sense to use this solution as a opposed to a netbook and Windows proper? Hopefully Kipp can address that.

      1. Michael C says:

        “And the real point of this project is just to raise awareness of the SPARK campaign and the free Windows CE Embedded and Visual Studio 2005 Pro they’re offering to hobbyists.”

        They’re far from free. They require that you have a copy of Windows (that’s AUD$327 for Vista Premium where I’m from). Worse still, once you start using proprietary MS development tools you start acquiring dependencies on all sorts of other proprietary technologies that are not free in either the speech or beer sense.

      2. Robert says:

        “We won’t be shilling for them. They actually told us they want an honest assessment. And we hired Kipp to do just that (and we would never take on anything like this unless the sponsor gave us full editorial control over the content). He’ll be covering both the positive and the negative aspects of using this solution in the hobby, non-commercial context.”

        But I also know you’re not stupid and you realize you wouldn’t ever see any more revenue from this big company if you displeased them.

    2. Michael C says:

      I groaned, too. While it’s clear that Make magazine is a commercial enterprise (you can’t miss it), this particular promotion seems particularly crass. The core of the problem is this: Microsoft seems to represent the very antithesis of the “maker ethic”. Why is a site that relies on people with a DIY attitude promoting a company whose approach is more like “buy our expensive shrink wrapped product, and only use it in the way we prescribe – you can’t touch its internals and you don’t need to know what’s inside”.

      Is this no longer the place that says “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it”? Windows isn’t open, and after you’ve paid for it you sure don’t own it.

  6. hurf durf says:

    Of course, the MS haters are out in force. HOW DARE MAKE: DEAL WITH SUCH A HORRIBLE COMPANY!

    BRB, reading yet another MAKE: article about Apple products.

    Protip: Automatically hating something is still a form of fanboi-ism.

    1. fsphil says:

      All of the comments above raise perfectly valid points. The only ‘fanboi’-like comment so far is yours.

      MS are historically a very anti-hobbiest company, there founder has been very vocal about that in the past. I hope they change, and I see signs of that here and there, but not in this instance. It seems little more than a bad “me-too” attempt at publicity.

    2. Anonymous says:

      Actually, it’s not “fanboi-ism [sic],” it’s prejudice, and it’s built out of scars.

  7. finsprings says:

    Vendor lock-in is the very antithesis of what it means to be a ‘maker’ IMHO; you can’t get much farther away from the “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it” goal than with Windows CE. This is clearly ‘the first fix is free’ stuff and I really don’t think MAKE should be encouraging that, from Microsoft or any other closed-source proprietary OS vendor.

  8. SuperJdynamite says:

    The price to entry for this CE setup is pretty high.

    For hobbyists who want to control things using a computer I think you’d be much better off getting an old laptop (hopefully with a full version of the OS) and downloading the Visual Studio Express versions.

    And another thing: if a controller costs a few hundred dollars how likely do you think I am to “embed” it in anything? The beauty of home-built microcontroller boards is that you can build up your project for tens of dollars — a price point at which you’d be willing to dedicate the board to full-time service in a project. I’m not going to spend hundreds of dollars on a development board only to permanently embed it in my car or pinball game or juke box or whatever.

  9. Matt says:

    Whatever happened to “If you can’t open it you don’t own it”, this is a sad day.

  10. Graham says:

    shouldnt this be the link for the “Spark your immagination homepage?” http://www.microsoft.com/windowsembedded/en-us/products/spark/default.mspx not the link for the now over contest?

  11. Cdreid says:

    This just sounds like a marketing scheme/scam by microsoft. You have to spend hundreds on specific hardware and in return they’ll give you a ‘free” copy of a micro-os that is opaque, likely vastly slower than the actual open source free micro-os’s out there, and that will follow the MS standard of monopolisation, Buggyness, godawful support and just when you get it down.. they change it all SOLELY to block out competitors. No thanks.

    Besides all that it would be vastly smarter to use an old laptop or even just a cheap pda off ebay. My last two cell phones have had ten times the processing power of my first computer or more. Why spend 10x the money and use a crap os??

  12. Collin says:

    I love the magazine, but really – MS? You seriously can’t be contemplating this. Hopefully anyone who believes in “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” will gloss this one over…..

    1. Anonymous says:

      I just lost a lot of respect for this magazine :(

  13. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Here’s the deal:

    MS came to us and wanted to do some sort of partnership to increase exposure to Windows Embedded CE. We said: How about if we do a series of projects using the software and your hardware partners’ hardware, we HONESTLY document the process, warts and all, and post it to MAKE and the SPARK site. They agreed. Now, do you REALLY think we would say no to such a deal? Honestly: would you?

    One of the great things about using Kipp on this project is that he’s got no bones to pick with MS out of principle. Sure, he’s had trouble with some of the software, some MS-based projects he’s worked on, but he doesn’t come to it as a card-carrying MS hater. He’s open to whatever and interested to see what he finds, given the reasons he outlined in his intro. I think he’ll provide an honest assessment and then you all can draw your own conclusions.

    1. Gareth Branwyn's concience says:

      Here’s the deal:

      MS came to us and wanted to do some sort of ‘partnership’ to increase exposure to Windows Embedded CE, even though we are well aware there are much better and less costly solutions for hobbyists that deserve such exposure but are not backed by large corporations. We said: How about if we do a series of projects using the software and your hardware partners’ hardware, we HONESTLY (with the guidence of their legal team) document the process, warts and all, and post it to MAKE and the SPARK site. They agreed, with the stipulation we only publish the positive findings. Now, do you REALLY think we would say no to such a deal? Honestly: would you?

      One of the great things about using Kipp on this project is that he’s got no bones to pick with MS out of principle, because he’s being paid for it, and has already been slapped with a gag order. Sure, he’s had a ton of trouble with the software, and most MS-based projects he’s worked on, but he doesn’t come to it as a card-carrying MS hater, because if he did, or in fact displayed enough concience to decline being involved, he’d be getting sued. He’s open to whatever and interested to see what he finds, given the reasons he outlined in his intro, as long as the cheque clears. I think he’ll provide an honest assessment, which we will then edit beyond recognition, and then you all can draw your own conclusions.

      1. Gareth Branwyn says:

        What’s really sad is knowing the real distance between the cynical fantasy you’re intent on imagining and the reality we actually live in (like the idea of consulting our legal “team” on something like this is just laughable to anyone who knows how we actually do business) or anyone suing(?) Kipp for refusing to work on this project. That’s some harsh reality, you inhabit, my friend. My condolences.

  14. THE DEV says:

    Why would anyone bother with Win CE or any other microsoft products when any of the suggested (linked) development boards will happily run a stable, free operating system and can be used with free development tools ?

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