Microsoft has released its first industry-specific version of Windows XP, for the retail and hospitality industry.

Windows Embedded for Point of Service (WEPOS) is aimed at applications such as point-of-sale systems, in-store information kiosks, self-service checkout systems and gas pumps, said Jason Demeny, product manager for WEPOS at Microsoft.

Its development was announced last year and Microsoft will announce later today it has begun shipping the OS to partners. The operating system is based on Windows XP Embedded with Service Pack 2. "WEPOS is the first time we have developed an OS specifically for an industry vertical," Demeny said.

The retail and hospitality industry spends billions of dollars every year on IT and Microsoft's operating systems already dominate the market, according to estimates from IHL Consulting. In North America, 71 percent of systems shipped in this sector were based on Windows while in Europe 56 percent were based on Windows NT/2000/XP, according to an IHL report published in April.

Compared to current and previous versions of Windows, the new operating system offers several advantages, Demeny said. One of the major advantages is plug-and-play support for devices compliant with version 1.8 of the Unified POS standard that has been developed by the U.S. Association for Retail Technology Standards. "The real value here is that it allows a quick upgrade that doesn't take time," said Demeny.

Current retail systems are typically written to support a limited number of peripherals and so integrating new devices can take a period of several weeks, he said. That means retailers are much more likely to limit the introduction of new technology during the average 10-year lifecycle of a system. Unified POS makes it possible to add a new device in the same way a PC user might plug in a new USB mouse and so it enables retailers to more easily take advantage of new technology, he said.

WEPOS is targeted at medium to large-size retailers and is already being evaluated by two major US companies: OMX's Office Max and Rite Aid Corp. The software will initially be available in eight language versions: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese.