Welcome Microsoft, really!?
Thoughts about Windows CE, Apple, and the future of handheld
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"
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
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.