Fraudulent Commercial Obsolescence

A constant push to better our technology has been the driver for all of mankind’s achievements and should never be disbanded. However, in an industry that survives on reliability of technology, those pushing new technologies purely for commercial reasons represent a danger, especially when it involves scaremongering of proven, mature technologies.
Ever since the success of my highly engaged “DOS isn’t dead” article (thanks for all those contributors) I’ve been pondering where else, these situations exist.

Thankfully, once I’d opened my mind to looking for these, it didn’t take long for a flood of examples to become evident. From the innocent “these features will improve your products” type statements made by the good guys, truly dedicated to helping their customers win more business, to the downright criminal inferences of some that “you must jump ship now to our shiny new product, before you sink with your rusty, current one next week” – with a heavy (and often false) inference that a particularly sharp iceberg lay millimeters ahead of your current course, and you should panic!

Shameless scaremongering and opportunism is something we’re especially used to in the UK, paraded by the gutter press as fact and often agonisingly perceived as fact by a headline hungry public – in the worst cases leading to mass demonstrations, directed at whichever group is the latest to be scapegoated for the nation’s current ill, though I digress.

I could actually be persuaded that such tactics work in the world of retail. We all remember the immature playgrounds jibes of “Luddite” (OK, I concede maybe less kind terms) if one dared to continue using a Nokia 5110, once the Nokia 3210 was available. It could also be argued that this is the entire fashion industry’s business model, how last year’s summer-wear is no longer suitable for this year’s summer escapes me, though millions follow this mantra, again, I digress.

The point I’m arriving at is that these characteristics have absolutely no place in our own industry. An industry built on reliability from proven technologies (we are always a year or two behind desktop PC technologies for a reason) and longevity of supply.

Commercially, of course a need always exists to embrace new technologies and to produce exciting new products to lure new customers in, but these must have their foundation in offering a new solution to a problem, not a slightly shinier version of what already exists with little or no functionality improvement – dare I mention a major smartphone manufacturer?

I urge all product developers to not become fodder to any of your suppliers desperate to push a new (probably more expensive) product into your solution that doesn’t truly offer something new that’s exciting to your own customers.

I mentioned before the countless examples I have seen of this, for the purposes of this article I shall now focus on one closest to my heart (as a Microsoft Certified Technical Specialist in XP Embedded/WES 2009) – I’m keen to hear any further examples readers have experienced themselves.

I’d like to focus on Windows XP and its very popular embedded variant, XP Embedded/Windows Embedded Standard 2009 (WES2009) – for the purposes of this article now referred to as simply ‘XPe’.

My suspicions were first arisen over a year ago, following a call from a panicked client, who had heard on the grapevine of XPe’s impending demise, it transpired he’d seen an announcement relating to the desktop version of XP (XP Professional) – this is an ambiguity we should first resolve, such that we can be confident in what is supplier scaremongering and what is simply client confusion.

The purely desktop versions of XP, XP Professional (and Home) editions had an announcement of a cessation of ‘support’ to come into effect on April 8th 2014. Whilst in my view Microsoft’s announcement was more than clear, a proportion of the embedded public erroneously took this to cover all versions of XP, including our own, XPe.

It’s important that we understand what is meant by the announcement itself, before we concern ourselves with what versions it affects. Some may perceive ‘support’ to mean technical support, which when considered Microsoft do not often offer such support in a traditional, call/e-mail based response to queries. Internet forums and Microsoft’s flavor of these, TechNet, is the platform for such support, these will not be going anywhere.

What is meant is a cessation to new security updates and hotfixes. In a desktop environment this clearly is an issue, in an embedded environment rarely so. In fact I’d suggest a large percentage of XPe deployments are still using the original Service Pack 1 version. Why you ask? These systems are rarely directly connected to the internet (it’s unnecessary, exposes the system to attack and necessitates an additional need for resource hungry anti-virus software).

Embedded Systems, by their nature, are embedded within a product thus more often than not communicate internally. Of course there remain many applications where the internet is involved, typically we see these embedded systems behind substantial firewalls rather than relying on the embedded system to protect itself at source, perhaps because deploying such security updates en masse can be a painful process in itself.

The remaining aspect is the advised lack of driver support for new hardware, this again can be confusing. If the reader takes this to be universal, he may perceive this to be equally true of new embedded hardware, when in fact it refers to the latest desktop hardware. Embedded manufacturers still ensure their systems support long forgotten legacy OS’s, as the continuation of the OS platform is so often desired for customers forced to upgrade (through obsolescence, for example).

So, back to the product line itself. Microsoft hasn’t helped itself by adding their own confusion into what is and isn’t available (of course they also have their own agenda in prodding developers to their latest versions), to clarify.

“XP Professional” is the full, complete version of the XP Operating System. Availability of the desktop licensed version has ceased, though the exact same product remains in existence for the embedded market, renamed ‘XP Professional for Embedded Systems”. The limitations on this are only that it must be used in an embedded system, performing a dedicated task (as what is defines such a system)

It’s worth noting now that a very well-known electronics distributor adds fuel to the fire of ambiguity by stating openly on their website “Windows XP Embedded (Now Windows XP Professional for Embedded Systems)”
“XP Embedded” defines the truly embedded version of the OS; the image built beforehand using the friendly Component & Target Designer package. “XP Embedded” refers to Service Pack 1 & 2, with the OS being renamed to fit into Microsoft’s new naming convention as “Windows Embedded Standard 2009”, for Service Pack 3.

We have addressed the two aspects above and found actually neither really applies to the embedded market place. With no announcements regarding cessation of availability of licenses (and why would they stop producing embedded licenses, it’s almost free money). One has to question exactly in what way is this OS now suddenly unsuitable?
XPe, the main focus of this discussion, has been dragged into the cloud of confusion regarding it’s obsolescence to create fear and pressure customers to upgrade. One wonders if actually, having perceived they ‘must’, would a developer actually consider the latest variants too resource and storage hungry? – Could this be a major shooting of the foot for those pushing these agendas?

Whilst writing this I received a mailshot from another major electronics distributor entitled ‘XP is about to expire: Discover the alternatives’, pushing, unsurprisingly, Windows 8 Embedded. At a risk of being branded a luddite, though I would counter this with an in depth understanding of what our industry needs, I would suggest that a very small percentage of embedded applications would utilize any of the new features offered by these latest versions, whilst all having to embrace higher unit costs and increased power consumption, heat dissipation and storage needs, reducing market competitiveness – all because you were pushed to jump on the new technology bandwagon.