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End of an Era: Windows CE’s final day

Handheld PC News

Posted 4 months ago | News | Chris Tilley 5 comments

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It will be a date observed by few and latterly remembered by even fewer. Yet a lineage that began on Saturday, 16th November 1996 will finally draw to a close tomorrow, Tuesday, 10th October 2023, some 26 years, 10 months and 25 days later.

At midnight US Pacific Time tomorrow, Windows Embedded Compact 2013 – or perhaps better colloquially referred to as Windows CE 8.0 – will slip from history as it exits is Extended Support Phase with Microsoft and it, as well as the entire history of Windows CE, becomes an unsupported, retired former product.

Windows CE 8.0 was released on 11th August 2013 and slipped into the end of its mainstream support on 9th October 2018. Yet few even noticed either occurrence. As a product CE 8.0 release failed to gain much of any traction or fanfare. Even here in the Windows CE community, most people disregard Windows Embedded Compact 2013 as a complete non-starter. As with Windows CE 7.0 before it. Few, if any devices were ever released on the platform and as a result most people – myself included – have never even seen a physical CE 8 device.

CE 8.0 was released at a confusing time for Microsoft. Windows 8.0 and Server 2012 were failing under a sea of criticism from the press, businesses, and the consumer alike. Windows Phone had been released using the NT kernel rather than the traditional CE kernel, but, despite considerable efforts, even that had begun to enter its own death spiral by late 2013. Behind the scenes and off the back of Adobe’s increasingly successful cloud transition. Microsoft corporate was beginning to reorientate the company - as well as the public - towards the acceptance of consuming Microsoft “in the cloud” and the subscription-based business model upon which Microsoft is increasingly staking its future.

By the time of CE 8.0, Microsoft had little real interest in the CE kernel, or its embedded operating systems division. The release was really a service update to Windows CE 7.0 with updated Windows 8.0 era branding. The release existed to keep legacy embedded hardware vendors on the platform for one more release while they attempted to mature and in-turn convince vendors to transition to the componentised, ARM optimised NT kernel under the Windows 10, 11 and IoT brands. The headline feature of the CE 8 release was the inclusion of IPv6 support in the TCP/IP stack for the first time, but that was about the only feature of note. Yet what was removed from the release was even more stark: the removal of the default shell sample – the Windows CE based Handheld PC user interface. This likely intentional act of sabotage mandated that any OEM had to release a device with an entirely custom coded shell, something that very few vendors have ever been willing to do. As a result, the release of Windows Embedded Compact 2013 well and truly ended the era of the cheap Windows CE netbook devices that had been so common in the years preceding its release.

While CE 8.0 might have fizzled out with a bang. The lasting legacy and love for Windows CE - and in particular the Handheld PC - have not. Our little community is alive and well and as any active H/PC user will tell you, even more than 26 years later, a H/PC can still turn heads. Consistently attracting new tinkerers, users and journalists to its appealing, compact, small form factor footprint. Windows CE created in many of us a passion for technology that modern efforts such as the smartphone and tablet craze have never been able to replicate. Smartphones are tools, but for many of us the H/PC was a lifestyle. For that, I mark this occasion with sorrow, that nothing has captivated me so much as that little grey box once did some 25 years ago. Yet despite this lament, it is a sorrow warmed with the happy memories of what came before and the passion and joy that these little devices have brought to myself and others over the last two and a half decades.

So here we are. In the last hours of the twilight of Windows CE before the sun sets on its legacy. What do you think? Were Microsoft right to cripple CE 8 and push OEM’s towards NT? Did Windows CE go before its time, or was it the right moment in which to let it go?

Let us know your thoughts and memories of Windows Embedded Compact 2013 in the comments below.
Posted on 09 October 2023 at 13:23By Chris Tilley (C:Amie)

Comments on this article

goldfishdev's Avatar goldfishdev 10 October 2023 8:45:20 PM
?? RIP
edit: the salute emoji did not work as intended. imagine me saluting right now.
I dunk for bananas's Avatar I dunk for bananas 10 October 2023 9:16:13 PM
It actually made perfect sense for MS to remove the default CE shell from WEC2013. Pretty much all later widespread CE devices are embedded devices, so the inclusion of extra ballast in the form of a shell that consumers would never see didn't really make any sense.
I don't think it was intentional sabotage, just Microsoft staying true to what CE had become - an ultra low footprint embedded OS. The market for things like chinese smartbooks that run on unmodified CE, which was already pretty tiny, had pretty much completely disappeared, so there was just no need for the shell to exist any longer.

CE 2013 ended up mostly being used in medical devices and things like NFC card readers on busses and trains
fantablium's Avatar fantablium 17 October 2023 5:18:30 PM
I didn't even know Microsoft still supported any version of CE!
Honestly the real sadness here is that support for HPC's was dropped far too soon, long before we saw LED backlights, good transreflective TFTs, Bluetooth and wifi... but we can still dream.

A nice article :-)
bdraper99's Avatar bdraper99 24 October 2023 12:34:20 AM
I actually had the pleasure of working on a significantly sized project involving building hardware and developing application software targeting the device using Windows CE and the Compact Framework. We found it to be a rock solid implementation. There are better choices now but when CE came out, for developers familiar with C#, Windows CE was a great choice.

It's a device that I'm sure most of you have actually seen, but likely didn't notice. It powered MICROS brand restaurant and hotel point-of-sale systems used in 100's of thousands of locations worldwide. Fond memories.
C:Amie's Avatar C:Amie 01 November 2023 11:38:51 AM
The Register's Liam Proven picked up on this article and he has offered up his on reflections on the history of Windows CE.
You can find it at https://www.theregister.com/2023/10/30/windows_ce_reaches_eol/

As @stingraze has pointed out to me, Gigazine in Japan picked up on it too https://gigazine.net/news/20231031-windows-ce-end-of-support/

Worth a look if you are interested
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