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The History of Microsoft Windows CE - Windows CE 2.0, 2.10. 2.11 & 2.12

Windows CE 2 encompasses both the second and third generation Microsoft operating system released for the H/PC, as well as the precursor release to the modern Pocket PC ranges that we see today.

Version 2 succeeded Windows CE 1.01 in November 1997, becoming Microsoft's first universally accepted PDA (embedded) operating system. The reason for CE 2 being given this title and not CE 1, is that many regard the short lived first incarnation of CE to have been nothing more than a public beta - Enabling potential OEM's and the consumer as a whole to get a feel for the software.

Microsoft changed the Windows CE core substantially for the release. With the Windows CE 2.0 release, the CE platform would no longer be exclusively a Handheld PC Operating System. CE 2.0 heralded the modularisation of Microsoft's first Embedded Operating System.
OEM's could now use the Scalable, low footprint Operating System. Take whatever parts of the Windows CE Platform they needed for a particular project and release a device based on it.
With changes to the hardware requirements laid down with CE 1, into much broader definitions of how CE could be used. OEM's now had the freedom to create a diverse range of devices. From Windows CE based ATM's, Cars, games consoles, Handheld PC's and even kitchen utensils.


The majority of H/PC applications available today through Internet resources are aimed to be run on the CE 2.xx interface. Unlike CE 1, the second release could run on the half VGA and full VGA versions of the H/PC, meaning the H/PC was able to expand into lateral markets, targeting users who needed a little bit more than a standard PDA or PC Companion. Through out the Windows CE 2 generation of releases, two very distinct types of end user were beginning to leave their marks on Microsoft's future thinking. These were standard PDA users, and users looking for a device akin to a laptop replacement.
This distinction between users groups remains prevalent within the entire Windows CE community, particularly within the more diverse Handheld PC community, where the range of devices, device sizes and capabilities allows more in the way of individual freedom over how they use their device.

Throughout the history of the Microsoft Handheld PC the only real rival to emerge into the handheld market has been Psion. Just as the destiny of Psion would become an important footnote on the history of the PDA, the rapidly diminishing fortunes of Psion became a sign of what would lie in store for the Clamshell form factor in a period of less than four years.

One of the strongest selling points developed into CE 2 devices is the familiarity the user has with their home or work PC. The Windows 95 interface introduced with CE 1 was carried on into CE 2, with some additions making it operate like a Windows 98 machine. The standard OEM installation for the initial releases of CE 2 included not only the Internet Explorer, but Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook and the new addition of PowerPoint. With the CE 2.11 Handheld PC Professional platform Pocket Access was added into the application suite, but only for H/PC class devices. These features ensuring that compatibility with Microsoft desktop products was refreshed against the Office 97 release. This was revised once again in 1999 through a service pack, adding a degree of support for Office 2000.

CE 2 also gained its strength from its communications capabilities. Added to and expanded upon from the original version of CE. CE 2 now provided the kernel and driver layer support for a broader range of peripheral hardware devices, most notably support for network (Ethernet) adapters, analogue modems, Infrared networking, GSM and cellular connections, the virgining (but not yet standardised under the 802.11 protocol) wireless networking and more. Other hardware types added to the array during the CE 2 releases were VGA adapters and larger PCMCIA / CF memory modules. As a result of the broad range of readily available hardware add-ons, Handheld PC devices fast became the interface for the businessman on the move.

The CE 2 operating system was designed to run on a multitude of new, low power device specific microprocessors. Over the course of the entire CE2 generation these included:

  • AMD Elan SC400
  • DEC SA1100 (StrongArm)
  • Hitachi SuperH 3 (SH3)
  • Hitachi SuperH 4 (SH4)
  • IBM PPC 4036C (x)
  • Intel x86 (468DX / Pentium)
  • Motorola PowerPC 82x
  • NEC VR3900 (MIPS)
  • NEC VR4101 (MIPS)
  • NEC VR4102 (MIPS)
  • NEC VR4300 (MIPS)
  • Philips DR 31500
  • Toshiba TX3912

However none of the manufacturers for CE 2 devices made use of the 486 and 82x support for the device, opting commonly for the MIPS and SH3 processor.

Windows CE 2.0 - Handheld PC 2.0

With the progression into CE 2 their came a whole new core programming method and a newer, larger driver database, expanding the H/PC's functionality with the advances in mobile device technology. These features came about, largely because of lessons learned from CE 1. The first CE 2.00 based Handheld PC's began shipping on the 13th October 1997.

Windows CE 2 was also able to handle larger amounts of data, with broader storage media support, and an increase in the Object Store size to 4MB. This allowed for more complex, specifically tailored applications to be created which could take advantage of the more robust and featured hardware required to do it.
A major addition to the Handheld PC were colour screens for both half and full VGA devices. The colour displays were able at this stage to support 24 bit colour, however the introduction of colour display adapters went hand in hand with depleted battery performance. Network support was included in the built-in driver database with the 2.10 release, while limited to a small number of PCMCIA Ethernet cards running on NE2000 chipsets, this paved the way for third party hardware manufacturers to improve the formula, allowing synchronisation and application installation across a network. 
Windows CE 2.0 was the first H/PC version to support True Type Font display. True Type became the font standard in Windows CE 2.0 and in all subsequent versions. The change to True Type in 2.00 was an effort to improve screen clarity over 1.0x devices which had suffered from having to make use of larger font sizes in order to be legible. With the release of 2.0 the system font became Tahoma at 9pt size allowing for much clearer screen definition of text and making better use of the available space. A secondary advantage of the shift to True Type is the ability to allow for text zooming within applications, adding an extra layer of accessibility to the Handheld PC platform.

Windows CE 2.01 - Palm PC 1.0

Windows CE 2.0 was refreshed with an interim update which provided Support for the Japanese language and input method. The 2.0 refresh was similar to the 1.01 refresh, unlike with CE 1, did not result in a change to the version numbering.

Windows CE 2.01 itself formed the basis for the first keyboardless "in the palm of your hand" device. Running off of the Windows CE 2.01 core operating system. The Palm PC was without many of the peripheral applications like Microsoft Pocket Office and Internet Explorer which were now an established norm on their H/PC counterparts - for which Microsoft were strongly criticised by technology pundits and their userbase. It was the lack of native productivity and communication tools, combined with an impression that Microsoft were unwilling to refresh the interface of the Palm-Sized PC which inevitably lead to it being a short lived release.
Developers were also heavily critical of the release, citing the inability to write applications using Visual Basic - a mainstay on the H/PC from the beginning. Smaller, on-demand developers were turned away from writing applications as knowledge of C++, (MFC or the Windows CE API) was required. Developers were further restricted by the lack of support for ActiveX controls, which once again were prevalent on Handheld PC 2.0
The Palm PC was in almost an ironic repeat of the public interpretation of Windows CE 1 for Handheld PC users, it took three attempts for Microsoft to find the correct formula for its QVGA sized, Palm OS rival. The result was the Pocket PC.

The Palm-Sized PC's history was unsteady from the outset. When it was originally launched it was simply named the Palm PC. However 3Com, the parent company behind the long established Pilot, Palm Pilot and Palm PDA's successfully challenged Microsoft on the grounds of trademark infringement, and, in an announcement on April 8th 1998 Microsoft backed down.
Within the following months all international references to the Microsoft "Palm PC" would be changed to "Palm-size PCs". To this day Group Leaders (MVP's) on Microsoft public newsgroups will still make a point of correcting you should you happen to miss the '-sized' portion of the name.

Windows CE 2.10

Windows CE 2.1 added some significant upgrades to the CE 2 package. These updates included:

  • TCP/IP enhancements
  • FAT32 Support
  • Modular File system wrapper, capable of supporting up to 256 different file systems
  • The Object Store maximum size was increased from 4MB to 16MB
  • Software Input Panel (SIP) capabilities built into the OS
  • The first Platform Builder release, all shell licensing controls were removed, but no example shell was provided
  • Command Line Processor
  • Fast Infrared Port (FIR) Hardware Support
  • Universal Serial Bus Controller Support (USB)
  • Larger File Handling Abilities
  • Placement of Databases on External Storage Mediums

Thought Windows CE 2.10 was never used as part of a formal Platform release - remaining just a core release. Early versions of the Handheld PC Professional beta were based around the Windows CE 2.10 core. This was subsequently updated to 2.11 once Microsoft finalised the updated components and began to introduce consumer devices into the market.

Windows CE 2.11 - Palm-Size PC 1.1

Based around the Handheld PC Professional subset, the Palm-Size PC 1.1 release was aimed specifically at the untapped Asian market. The release was designed to provide the Handheld PC experience in a QVGA subset, in conjunction with enhancements designed to cater for the specific cultural needs of the orient. Devices such as the LEO Freestyle range offered support for Visual Basic development, printing, faxing and in a first for the QVGA form factor. Pocket Internet Explorer was bundled into the Operating system.
Palm-Size PC 1.1 supported colour, built-in networking support and most of the H/PC Pro OS subset. The Chinese input method editor (IME) supported character recognition for Pinyin Romanisation and ChangJie, along with Chinese application ports - including Pocket Outlook and Windows CE Services.

Windows CE 2.11 - Palm-Size PC 1.2

It would be over a year before the benefits of Windows CE 2.11 would arrive on a Western device. The Palm-sized PC release, Wyvern was effectively nothing more than an interim platform update, bringing the small form factor device up to the Windows CE 2.11 core. The main feature billed for the third Palm-Sized PC release was the introduction of colour onto the Western QVGA - keyboard-less form factor (though the 1998 Chinese Palm-Size PC release supported colour). Despite the updated core, the Pocket Office applications and Pocket Internet Explorer were still absent from the package, much to the frustration of existing users. Wyvern also introduced Windows CE Services 2.2 as the native sync client and included the broader platform and peripheral connectivity benefits offered by Windows CE 2.1.

Windows CE 2.11 - Handheld PC Professional

Handheld PC Professional GraphicThe Handheld PC incarnation of Windows CE 2.11 became know as Handheld PC Professional. Amongst many enhancements and new features in the release were the inclusion of Microsoft Pocket Access, and the ability to open Microsoft Word and Excel files without needing to convert them to their mobile counterparts.

This release also enabled a significant hardware to change. Devices that resembled sub-notebooks were introduced onto the market. The only H/PC which used the CE 2.11 operating system without migrating to the sub-notebook specification at the time of launch was the hp Jornada 600 series.

Microsoft allowed its OEM's to decide whether to offer an upgrade path from Windows CE 2.0 to the new H/PC Professional. Those that did, offered upgrades under the Microsoft project codename 'Callisto'. The Callisto project saw physical ROM chip replacement (as was still the norm) to upgrade the Operating System from H/PC 2.0 (CE 2.0) to the 3.0 version of the Handheld PC software running under the CE 2.11 core.

Windows CE 2.12

The final outing for Windows CE 2 was with an interim platform builder update, taking the core CE version up to Windows CE 2.12. No large volume consumer devices were ever released with Windows CE 2.12 onboard. OEM's decided that providing interim updates to existing customers wasn't necessary, mainly due to Windows CE 2.12, by its nature, being an Operating System Core release rather than a Handheld PC Platform release.
As a result of this, most OEM's did not see 2.12 as a worthwhile update and thus chose to wait for the release of the Windows CE 3 core before continuing with their device development. Of the few CE 2.12 devices which ever made it to market, most are thin-client workstations and not PDAs.

Despite the relatively insignificant uptake of Windows CE 2.12, the release was significant. Version 2.12 built strongly on the modularisation of the Windows CE base operating system. The new Platform Builder became a readily accessible commercial product, allowing for uptake of Windows CE not seen before. Along with security, stability and library improvements came significant shell level enhancements. For the first time, Microsoft included a readily available example shell, aesthetically similar to that of H/PC Pro which unlike in previous releases no longer required special licensing terms beyond that of Platform Builder.

A second web browser option for its Platform Builder OEM developers was included in addition to the Pocket IE release of the 2.11 core (complete with bug fixes). A new, larger footprint and vastly more capable version of Microsoft Internet Explorer was included. Based on the Internet Explorer 4.01 SP2 code from the desktop release sphere, the Windows CE version increased the functionality of the CE platform for thin-client manufacturers. With a desktop standard web-browser Windows CE could be targeted at a newer niche market, looking for low cost, fast turn around devices. Designed to remove the support and stability issues associated with running mainstream Windows Operating Systems, devices such as web terminals, kiosks and richer, more diverse interactive point of sale terminals could be created based on the compact CE framework.
Each successive Windows CE core release since 2.12 has followed with improvements matching those found in the Internet Explorer release road map. Taking CE itself out of the exclusive realm of the PDA forever.

Windows CE 2.x Release History

CE 2 as an entity was released in an OEM format only, and had many minor re-releases there after.

  • CE 2.0 Core (Alder; September 29th 1997; Successor to CE 1)
  • CE 2.0 Embedded Toolkit 2.0 (Axe)
  • CE 2.0 Handheld PC 2.0 (Mercury; November 1997)
  • CE 2.0 Handheld PC 2.0 (Mercury, March 11th 1998; Japanese Language edition
  • CE 2.01 Palm PC 1.0 (Gryphon; January 8th 1998; First Microsoft Palm PC Release)
  • CE 2.01 Auto PC 1.0 (Apollo; January 8th 1998; First Auto PC OS)
  • CE 2.10 Core (Alder Enhancement Pack (EP))
  • CE 2.10 Embedded Toolkit 2.1 (Axe Enhancement Pack (EP))
  • CE 2.11 Core (Birch; July 1998)
  • CE 2.11 Platform Builder (Birch/Buzzsaw)
  • CE 2.11 Handheld PC Professional (Jupiter; October 8th 1998; H/PC Professional release)
  • CE 2.11 Palm-Sized PC 1.1 (Orion; Autumn 1998; Palm-Sized PC Chinese Language Update)
  • CE 2.11 Palm-Sized PC 1.2 (Wyvern; February 1st 1999; Palm-Sized PC release, Successor to Gryphon)
  • CE 2.11 Webphone (Hermes; Webphone release)
  • CE 2.12 Core (Birch SP2 / Birch Enhancement Pack (EP), September 28th 1999)
  • CE 2.12 Platform Builder (Birch Enhancement Pack (EP))
  • CE 2.12 Auto PC 2.0 (Goldeneye; Auto PC release)


All Windows CE Core releases between CE 2.0 and 3.0 used codenames relating to types of tree. Conversely, all Platform construction tools used codenames of tools used to cut down trees.
Following the theme from Windows CE 1.0 of giving development project cosmic and mythological significance, both the Handheld PC and Palm-Size PC continue this trend. The Handheld PC releases are names for planets in our Solar System, and the Palm-Size PC release take their name from mythological creatures.


The original Host Synchronisation software for Windows CE 2.0, Windows CE Services 2.x was later surpassed by ActiveSync 3.0 which would provide native synchronisation services for the final batches of the 2.x generation devices. ActiveSync predominantly remained in the realm of Windows CE 3.0, as part of the fourth generation Handheld PC device while the often buggy and unreliable Windows CE Services - developed under the codename Minerva - remains, for better or worse associated with CE 2. For more on the lineage of Windows CE Services 2.x click here.

Microsoft stopped their Windows CE 2 development when the decision was made to update Microsoft's Mobile Device product line, with a new bold universal operating system. Sporting new functionality on the device, and broader hardware support which would better make use of the increasing levels of new mobile hardware technology, as well as meet the needs of the on-demand consumer by making better use of recent strides made in CPU and battery performance.
As Microsoft virtually unnoticed shipped the Platform Builder release for Windows CE 2.12, development on the next generation of Handheld PC operating system was well under way, along with the prototypes for the successor to the Palm-size PC. 

Giving birth to Windows CE 3 in April of the year 2000, the Pocket PC was born.

Stormy waters ahead

Windows CE 2.0 Screenshots | Palm PC 1.0 | Handheld PC Pro Screenshots | Handheld PC Device List


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