Is it time for a Windows Embedded Hobbyist Program?

Don’t be fooled by the content of this post, read all the way through to see where I’m going with it, Stewart Tansley would understand, this topic has been debated before.

I have respect for these guys and gals at and other hobbyist sites like It's geeks like this that want to tinker with the OS at a level that is difficult to do with Full Windows XP Pro/Home, but much easier with Linux or XP Embedded.

The goal:
Build your own car audio or navigation system running on either XP Pro that is trimmed to the point it'll run on a Compact Flash, or build on top of XP Embedded. And before you ask - No, I’m not referring to the AutoPC on CE (er, I guess it’s called
Windows Automotive now?).

The problem:
Since most hobbyists that attempt this don't want or need to learn the XPe Tools, most resort to hacking out files from Pro to reduce the footprint, experiment, fail, learn from their mistakes, tinkering some more and succeed with lots of time and patience.

But the interesting thing to me here isn't just that they're hobbyists and learning about the Windows Internals along the way to hacking the OS to meet their requirements. The interesting part is that they're leveraging some of the Embedded Enabling Features from XP Embedded within their XP Pro and Home SKUs to accomplish their goals.

For instance they're leveraging Bootprep, EWF, HORM (hibernate once, resume many) and Minlogon from the XPe-SP1 and SP2 downloads.

Here's some choice quotes from various hobbyist sites:

From ‘Archaic Binary’ (scroll down the page):

"The EWF filter driver is also working great. I no longer have to shutdown my system, I can just turn off the car and the system will power off instantly, since the data is pretty much 'read-only' on the flash".

From an excellent 'how to guide' for EWF/HORM/Minlogon and how to port it to XP Pro (link originated from the forums in

"MinLogon, This is an optional component and is not necessary for running XP from a CF card, but it has been shown to improve boot time".  

Here’s a few more threads if you're interested in a few of the challenges they're having with the EEFs: Link to a discussion of EWF, link to a discussion of EWF & Minlogon

Now to the whole point of this post.

The point is not that I *just* find it cool that people are using our product in a way we hadn’t intended or targeted. Hobbyists like this are very resourceful and they’re not doing it for money but because it’s a cool hobby. This is the same reason that more geeky teenagers and young adults give for preferring LINUX over Windows:
- because they “can tinker with it
- because “Microsoft is old and busted, while LINUX is the new hotness”.

I’m referring to hobbyists with interests as varied as a desire for a custom Automotive Navigation system or a personal robot like Jay Beavers’ Cylon project.

The “hobbyist” doesn’t want to be stuck with 500Megs or a gig of features they don’t want nor need for their projects. All those features are perfectly acceptable with probably 99% of the population's PCs, but it’s the remainder of the population - the hobbyists - that may constitute, in my opinion, the future of the computing industry and the future decision makers like CIO/CTOs or IT professionals. These are the folks that are making the purchasing recommendations within their companies.

It’s the hobbyists (and the college students working on their CS degrees) that we need to cultivate and show that there’s an alternative to LINUX if you just want to tinker with the OS and build your custom system that’s still as powerful and respectful as the Professional SKU and still runs your .NET apps or any off the shelf Win32 app/driver.

So why not get the mindshare today by producing a version of the XPe product that targets the “hobbyist”? If we did, perhaps the hobbyist would be able to purchase the entire XPe product (Tools and all) with a license for a single runtime that doesn’t timebomb. Make the price around a hundred bucks which seems reasonable if you’re just tinkering around in your garage.

There’s an academic program for Windows Embedded, is it time for a Windows Embedded Hobbyist program as well? I'm already aware that there's logistical issues with something like this, but surfacing an issue and a potential solution is the first step. <grin>

- Andy

[edit 3/21/05: per comment at, it's '.com', not '.org' <grin>]

Comments (14)

  1. Doug McClean says:


    I was just thinking earlier today about some avionics I want to build for my experimental aircraft and how XP embedded would be a good fit, but the licensing doesn’t make any sense for that kind of approach.

    Great idea!

  2. Jay Ongg says:

    I was just thinking about building a car computer for GPS + music playing. Using HORM would be ideal in this situation. But…It’s not that it can’t be done (I already have my trusty epia mini-itx and drivers). The question is – why?

    Even with a mini-itx case, the resulting box will be larger than a portable music player and probably will not have as good of an interface. I actually ended up taking an old Ipaq3955, added a 2gig PCMCIA hard drive, and use MS Voice Command to tell it to play music via voice commands.

    As for the GPS software, a PocketPC + GPS receiver is good enough and probably cheaper.

    I was thinking about reading up on SAPI and writing software to control WMP, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Microsoft Plus! comes with a WMP navigator by voice, but using a PocketPC + Voice Command is easier and probably more effective (in my opinion).

    Now, I would absolutely LOVE to have a reason to build a car computer. If you’d like to discuss this offline, shoot me an email 🙂 (look me up in the MSFT address book)!

  3. Nagu says:

    Great point that you put forward Andy.This program you said should not be a learning ground for the hackers.

  4. SFiorito says:

    Hey, thanks for recognizing the hard work we do. I’m the EWF/MinLogon/HORM guy. My whole reason for doing it is because 1) I’m a poor college student and don’t have the time or money to use XPe, and 2) I got really annoyed at people just firing off and saying "it’s not possible" with XP. So with lots of time spent in VMWare and VirtualPC, building and rebuilding XPe images, snooping around the registry and spending too much time on MSDN I finally got EWF working. After that I moved on to MinLogon, and then just for kicks I got SDI working too! I think a hobbyist license for XPe would be a great idea and I hope the big wigs over at MSFT seriously think about it.

    Jay: actually, with a Mini-ITX mobo and a small DC-DC PSU I can fit a system into the dash of my ’93 300ZX. Others just stick it into the glove compartment or under the seat. With the new Nano-ITX boards you’ll be able to have a complete system that will fit any DIN enclosure out there.

  5. Jay Beavers says:

    Here, here Andy. There’s a lot of great work to be done in small form factor devices & XPe is a great technology to apply to the space, but the licensing is a serious problem.

    For me, being able to create an image that has the full APIs of XP and .NET that can fit on a 500 MB Compact Flash card (with room to spare) is a very cool thing. I love the fact that I can just start up my "normal" development environment, like Visual Studio.Net Express, and write code that will work on a small form factor, low power computer.

    Like Silvio, I’m excited about the small x86 form-factors (< 10" square) like the (just released) Nano-ITX from Via or the new Pico-BTX form factor that Intel just announced that is supposed to start shipping this summer.

  6. nevermind says:

    Uhhh… You guys realize that mp3 car folks use software to rip Internet Explorer and other components out before installation, right? You’re allright with that, too?

  7. Sean McLeod says:

    The Windows CE guys have a program/license for hobbyists and something similiar for XPe would be great.

  8. John Hall says:

    For the love of god PLEASE…

    Should I start a petition?

  9. John,

    We would love to hear more from you why the XPe hobbyist program is needed, for example,

    – what project do you plan to use it for?

    – how long do you think it’ll take for the development?

    Have you checked our current hobbyist program "SPARK Your Imagination" which offers free CE kit:


  10. Denver Giles says:

    I have been looking into the options for the Jukebox set-top pc I am building.  I will be using some 3rd-party software which is full windows only so the CE option is a no-go.  I basically want a licensed copy of windows (xp or xpe) that is completely minimised in footprint and customised so that the main os is on a CF drive but the temp folder, my docs, etc are on the HD.

    I am a developer by trade and am writing a custom interface to the 3rd party program for playlist creation using .Net.  As I am writing it using as a networked app, I may also create a client for my PDA (win mobile 6.1) so I can control it from the garden, kitchen, etc (possibly even whilst I am not there which would really freak the girlfriend out if she was indoors).

    At the moment, my only option is to buy a copy of XP (which I have now done) and use nlite to strip it, then add any mods (minlogin, etc).  It would be nicer to build it up from scratch like the XPE would allow.

  11. Denver Giles says:

    P.S.  Although at present, this is just a personal hobby project, if it works well, it may be that I would start building these Jukeboxes for sale and then I would purchase the full XPE license so allowing hobbyists cheap access could open doors to more sales of XPE anyway.

  12. John Traenkenschuh says:

    Yes, ya, certainly.  The growth of embedded devices makes the platform the new hotness.  Netbooks sales are an indicator that people want a little less than a laptop for lightweight connectivity roles.  Plus, most companies get into a technology that their unofficial innovators endorse.  Can’t endorse what you can’t afford…

  13. Defrib says:

    This is definately a good idea. I would love to run Win embedded on a currently Linux-running Zonbu (very small pc with CF instead of a harddisk).

  14. With the new hardware coming out in Q4 from Intel (their new tech, like Lightpeak and others) now is the time.  We can even make it the new "computer" store, the hardware is here, let’s start playing with a larger crowd.

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