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Pegasus' Sweet 16

Handheld PC News

Posted 12 years ago | News | Chris Tilley 8 comments

Microsoft Windows CE 1.0 Logo
16 years ago, Microsoft stood at a the COMDEX 96 podium, side by side with partners NEC and Casio to announce what was then Microsoft's first commercial, specifically developed embedded operating system.

16 years later, Pegasus, or Windows CE or more recently Windows Embedded Compact as it became known celebrates its sweet 16 today.

Much has changed in the last 16 years, but none more so than the changes seen in the embedded market in the last 5. Windows CE has been the foundation of Microsoft's consumer and business orientated embedded pathway from the original 1996 Handheld PC, through the Palm-Size PC, Pocket PC and Windows Mobile. Microsoft has reinvented its consumer device profile for Windows CE many times, even maintaining the CE architecture through the radically different and highly polarising Windows Phone 7 operating system.

Yet Windows CE's position as Microsoft's embedded darling and its chances for long-term sustainability ended abruptly 18 days ago.

With the release of Windows Phone 8 on 29th October, Microsoft has withdrawn from their Windows CE legacy and instead have chosen to use Windows NT as the foundation of their new iPhone killer platform.

While Windows CE will live on, at least in the short term in the guise of the lower-end, interim Windows Phone 7.8 release, the question now remains: what does the future hold for Windows CE beyond 2013?

The Windows CE kernel itself has not received a major update since the release of Windows Embedded Compact 7.0 in March 2011, a period of 20 months. With the decision to focus on Windows NT and its new modular ARM kernel release, Microsoft has effectively achieved with NT what the original Windows CE project set out to do; provide a small footprint, modular and expandable operating system against which developers could use familiar tools and API's to develop programs for embedded devices.

The original problem with Windows NT in 1996 was that compared to Windows CE, its size was uneconomical to use as an embedded operating system. Yet as Microsoft have inexorable improved and expanded Windows NT and the repercussions of Moore's law are realised by hardware manufacturers. The size of Windows NT's kernel is no longer extreme when you consider the relative in-expense of flash memory and the horsepower available on modern embedded platforms such as the ubiquitous smartphone.

This change, coupled with Microsoft's commitment to release the Windows NT kernel for the ARM architecture - the first x86 departure since IA64 (Itanium) for Windows Server 2003 or Windows NT 4.0 on PowerPC/MIPS - has left the role of Windows CE significantly reduced in the product line-up when Microsoft are themselves betting their future on NT for their flagship mobile product.

Crucially for Windows NT's rise to the forefront has been Microsoft's desire to modularise the platform. Cynically you could argue that the de-modularisation of NT began with the Netscape anti-trust but was then accelerated with the promulgation of Windows NT 4.0 and XP embedded as x86 alternatives to CE itself in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Since then Windows and Internet Explorer have been wholly detached; in the CE space since CE 2.0 and more recently in the NT space since the release of Windows 7. Consequently there is very little other than footprint to compare the two platforms, particuarly when you consider that Microsoft are betting the future of development on common executable format, managed programming languages such as its .net Framework. The managed execution environment allows an application written in managed code to execute in an optimised fashion on any device, any platform. With Windows 8 on the desktop, Microsoft are again stating universal "write once" programming as a selling point - "app" code for Windows 8 and it will work on Windows Phone 8 too. Yet this is nothing new. .net 1.0 programs written for the desktop can run on Windows CE or vice versa as long as the desktop specific API's aren't used. This has resulted in an increasing focus on managed code and conversely less emphasis on native code applications in the pursuit of that "killer app".

Moving away from the differences in platform, one of the Windows CE Platform's (Handheld PC, Pocket PC etc) main selling points was always its synchronisation abilities; the so called desktop companion. Again here Microsoft are rapidly moving away from the premise of device side synchronisation to support the vogue paradigm of could service integration (Window Azure, Exchange AciveSync and Office365) and invisible device synchronisation (Windows Live Mesh/Sync). Here though Windows CE is losing out. The technology to integrate with Microsoft cloud services has been limited in the Windows CE Core operating system, with Microsoft's efforts levied at adding features to Windows Phone. Now with the change in focus to Windows NT, Windows CE will become increasingly isolated from this feature set as it is unlikely that Microsoft will seek to release much more than developer API's for Windows CE in subsequent .net framework releases - if indeed there are any.

The sad truth may simply be that Windows CE's sweet 16 is CE's last opportunity to attend the debutante ball before it is left, the unwanted prom date, watching Windows NT sweep across the dance floor; the proverbial bell of the ball.

Happy birthday Windows CE, enjoy your birthday. We hope that it isn't your last.

View: History of Windows CE
Posted on 17 November 2012 at 17:13By Chris Tilley (C:Amie)

Comments on this article

takwu's Avatar takwu 19 November 2012 9:28:47 AM
Nice article, if a bit "doom and gloom" for CE...

About the cloud thing, I believe MS called it "3 screens 1 cloud" or something like that? Remember all those Microsoft TV adverts "Clyde vs Cloud" for Windows Live? :D

CE Core might not get the cloud integration treatment, but at least Windows Mobile has a Windows Live app that lets you sync/push a lot of stuff with Hotmail service, if I'm not mistaken...

As I said when I first heard about WP8 being based on Win RT, it has been great with Windows CE.

Now I just really wish a new HPC will be made based on Win RT... :)
C:Amie's Avatar C:Amie 20 November 2012 6:27:29 PM
I can't say that I am familiar with said adverts. Perhaps they are a regional thing?

I think that it would be good to see but in the guise of our recent conversation, I cannot see Microsoft allowing OEM's to release a H/PC clamshell device with it when they are pushing for touch, touch, touch!

A back-port of the metro start screen to CE could be an interesting experiment though, certainly doable as a small explorer replacement project.
Jake's Avatar Jake 25 November 2012 7:11:28 AM
An amazingly informative piece. For someone who has used Windows CE since 2002, I still learned volumes from the article's exploration of CE history and your opinions.

Many thanks,
C:Amie's Avatar C:Amie 26 November 2012 7:41:39 PM
Thanks :) Nice to know that someone read it. It has been a while since I wrote an editorial.

RJ99's Avatar RJ99 10 December 2012 1:55:01 PM
Me too, fascinating history - thank you. I've been using CE since '97 & like your earlier correspondent I learned a lot from this. I will presently do a post on my continued use of Win CE units - three of them - albeit not for conventional purposes!
kurkosdr's Avatar kurkosdr 15 March 2013 3:43:37 PM
Windows Embedded Compact 7 (aka CE 7) is still commercially available, so CE certainly will not die after Windows Phone 7.8 phones stop being made.

How about an article/presentation about CE 7? From what I have seen, it has a "desktop" interface (like the one found on CE 6 webpads and sub-notebooks) with a start menu and everything. How about a "CE 7 compatible devices" category in the device list? So if someone wants to load CE 7 in a webpad or subnotebook, he can find out which ones are compatible. There is a category for CE 6 webpads and subnotebooks, so why not one for CE 7?
kurkosdr's Avatar kurkosdr 15 March 2013 3:48:14 PM
With Windows RT facing criticism regarding sluggish response times and a huge appetite for RAM and storage space (which increases BoM costs for OEMs), and Sinofsky's "one Windows for all devices" strategy being also under fire (and Sinofsky out of the game), don t call CE dead just yet (provided of course it can do multi-core ARM CPUs, can it?)

dusty_dex's Avatar dusty_dex 28 March 2013 7:38:34 AM
Cloud is misspelt.

"paradigm of could service integration"

Enjoyed the article.

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