HOME | Windows Mobile | Palm OS | Rugged PCs | Pen Computers | Tablet PCs | Case Studies | Features | Industry leaders
Welcome Microsoft, really!?

Thoughts about Windows CE, Apple, and the future of handheld computing devices

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer (September 1996)

Leave it to Microsoft to do things at its own pace. Two years after the ill-fated WinPad project that never saw the light of day, Microsoft finally seems to be ready (and willing) to extend its reach into the promising market of handheld electronic devices.

Microsoft's September 17 announcement--in the form of a press release and a well-attended conference call--was brief and only revealed the basics of the new operating system. No one quite knows yet what the CE in Microsoft CE stands for. Guesses we heard are "Consumer Electronics," "Compact Edition," and "Communications Enabled." What we do know is that Windows CE is a compact, yet according to Microsoft's senior vice president of the consumer platforms division, Craig Mundie, "fairly big" subset of the Windows 32 API for what the company calls "pocketable" devices.

Microsoft doesn't use the term PDA. PDAs, Microsoft says, were underpowered devices using not-ready-for-primetime technology (specifically, handwriting recognition) and lacking a synergistic relationship with PCs. Instead, Microsoft talks about "Handheld PCs" or "HPCs", small devices that will be formally introduced at Comdex in November, and shipping in volume before the end of the year. The first generation of devices will be produced by such consumer electronics heavyweights as Casio, Hewlett Packard, NEC, Phillips, and Lucky Goldstar.

Windows CE is said to be relatively easily adaptable to different chip architectures. Currently supported architectures are Hitachi's SH-3 RISC processors and Silicon Graphic's MIPS series. According to Microsoft, Windows CE also runs on Intel's x86 series. The SH-3 chips use Hitachi's SuperH RISC architecture with a five-stage pipeline, 4GByte of address space, 32 bit internal paths and a very compact CPU core. The 3.3V chips have built-in power management with three power-down modes, all contributing to power dissipation of less than 700mW in a 100MHz configuration, while delivering Dhrystone 100MIPS. Microsoft expects HPC devices to run several weeks on two AA batteries, something hardly achievable with an equally powerful Intel chip. Intel builds Cadillacs, not Hondas.

While the initial generation of HPCs will have touch screens and pen input, regrettably they do not support handwriting recognition. Microsoft says that Japanese market HPC products will concentrate on handwriting recognition, but that the technology is not mature enough yet for the US market. Luckily, from this writer's point of view, this opinion is not shared by some of the leading handwriting recognition vendors. CIC of Redwood Shores, California announced that its "planned offerings include next generation pen input technologies designed for the unique requirements of handheld devices." Advanced Recognition Technologies Inc., which has offices in Cupertino, California also announced handwriting recognition support for the Windows CE platform in the form of smARTwriter for Windows CE. ART intimated that this was not an easy task as Microsoft is not currently offering a pen extension API for Windows CE.

Microsoft was extensively grilled about the similarities between Windows 95 and Windows CE, and the ease with which applications might be ported. Microsoft answered that, by and large, the APIs are the same in Windows and Windows CE, and that only "very minor" modifications are required to APIs, especially in the user interface area. Since Windows CE is thus basically a subset of Windows, there is a large number of PC based development tools and a broad development platform for ISVs.

Microsoft wasn't specific what applications would be included in the initial release of Windows CE, but said that it would include a subset of the "current" version of the Microsoft Explorer web browser and also that the shipping version is expected to support scripting and plug-ins. The company spokesman was not specific about Java support. Microsoft also said that a minimum of 33 companies would announce software for Windows CE, most probably at Comdex.

Microsoft views Windows CE as an extension of Windows into a new class of devices which will eventually include everything from mobile computing to multimedia and entertainment. The OS has potential for video support as well and could become the basis for multimedia and interactive applications.

Microsoft stressed a "synergistic" relationship with the desktop as the major design goal of the new operating system. While hinting at "dedicated uses" for Windows CE, the main thrust is clearly directed to the horizontal, consumer and business market. Asked who the targeted users are, Microsoft said "anyone who is now a Windows 95 user."

Microsoft was quite clear that it does not see HPCs running Windows CE as PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants). Microsoft's vision is that they are little PCs that have a synergistic relationship with the desktop. The price of such devices could be at or below $500 and Microsoft sees a market of a million units per year. The company states it has no competition because Windows CE HPCs are a "class by itself," integrating desktop and handheld better than any other mobile platform.

Needless to say, Microsoft's view isn't shared by Apple who has been selling Newton MessagePad PDAs for three years. In a conference call just one hour after Microsoft's, Apple's reaction, presented by Jim Groff, senior vice president and general manager of the Information Appliance Group, brought up memories of its (in)famous 1982 "Welcome IBM, really" ad in the Wall Street Journal.

Apple stated that Microsoft's entry will "cause significant customer attention to this category," but emphasized that Apple created the handheld category, is now in its 4th hardware generation, has 200 shipping apps, and 300 VARs. Apple rejected Microsoft's approach as evolutionary rather than revolutionary, saying that it's just an attempt to "shrink down and make fit Windows into a small form factor." Apple reminded us that carrying over baggage from one generation of computing to the next is not always the best approach and that the company will continue taking a user-centric approach with its Newton and Pippin technology base, one targeted to business professionals, education, and healthcare markets.

Looking beyond the respective rhetoric, it's clear that much is at stake. The handheld consumer electronic market has huge potential, but no one knows yet what shape or form it will take. Apple is likely frustrated that its three year technology lead in PDAs is now suddenly in jeopardy, while Microsoft probably realizes that despite its might, Apple's cautions are true and it's far from assured that the next generation of handheld electronics was just waiting for a mini version of a desktop operating system.

Evolution or revolution, that remains the question. Will PDAs or HPCs, or whatever you want to call them, be new and different devices or just little computers? No one knows and perhaps the answer will come from a garage in Silicon Valley and not from Microsoft or Apple. But Microsoft's entry into the handheld market is certain to be a huge boost to mobile computing.