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Intelligent Machines

Windows for GPS

Microsoft’s latest operating system makes it easier to integrate location detection with other services.

Internet-enabled services could become more common in vehicles, thanks to a new operating system launched this week by Microsoft. Dubbed Windows Embedded NavReady 09, the operating system is designed to improve wireless connectivity and Internet access in GPS devices. It also includes Bluetooth features that allow GPS receivers to be coupled with other devices, such as cell phones, PDAs, and laptops.

“The industry mostly knows us for Windows PC, Windows Mobile, Zune, and Xbox,” says Dan Javnozon, senior product manager of Windows Embedded. But for the past 11 years, he says, Microsoft has been supplying embedded operating systems for everything from huge industrial robots and home automation appliances to temperature controls and some GPS devices.

Whereas the desktop version of Windows adds new functions and requires more memory with every release, embedded operating systems sacrifice versatility for leanness and efficiency. Currently, most GPS companies, such as TomTom and Garmin, use their own custom-built, proprietary operating systems. Others use off-the-shelf embedded systems that may not be ideal for GPS technology. Mio, for instance, uses an existing Microsoft operating system called Windows Embedded Compact, which is designed for real-time handheld devices.

Because GPS devices require relatively powerful operating systems, it can be expensive for companies to develop their own. NavReady makes it easy for GPS receivers to share data with other hardware, so it should reduce the complexity and cost of building and testing Internet-connected GPS devices. “I think Microsoft is laying the foundations for what we see as one of the big frontiers for navigation devices–connectivity,” says Clint Wheelock, chief research officer with ABI Research, in New York City.

Like Microsoft’s other embedded software platforms, NavReady is modular, says Javnozon: developers can discard the code they don’t need, which should make their systems more efficient. “They can pick and choose components, like Lego blocks,” Javnozon says.

Microsoft believes that the new operating system will help people retrieve more up-to-date information about nearby places, people, and services. The problem with current location-based services, says Wheelock, is that when they search for points of interest–such as restaurants, businesses, museums, and parks–they simply query a static database stored on the GPS device, which only rarely gets updated.

Existing traffic-notification services have a similar problem, Wheelock says. They generally send out information on a broadcast basis, he says, so drivers are not necessarily getting the latest real-time information, which can be crucial to, say, deciding which route to take home after work.

Javnozon says that by making it easier for developers to add Internet access to their GPS devices, NavReady will enable two-way communication and ensure that the very latest information is retrieved. “It allows you to search for points of interest directly on the Internet within a Windows Live database,” he says.

“In Europe, about 20 percent of drivers already have some form of navigational device, while in the U.S., it’s more like 10 percent,” says Chris Jones, a principal analyst with Canalys, in Reading, England. The market for automotive GPS devices is expanding rapidly, Jones says, but NavReady will likely spur innovation and competition. For example, although some high-end products on the market already have Internet and Bluetooth functions, he says, NavReady should make these features fast become the norm.

Similarly, other applications are likely to emerge from the increased connectivity of GPS devices, such as location-based social networking, says Wheelock.

Although launched this week, NavReady is currently available only to device makers. So we shouldn’t expect devices that use it to hit the market until 2009. And when they do, don’t expect any kind of familiar Windows interface, says Javnozon. Manufacturers have often spent a lot of time and money developing their own signature user interfaces. NavReady has been designed to work in the background with these interfaces, he says.

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