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What was Windows CE and why did people use it?



An HP Jornada with Windows CE
Hewlett-Packard

Microsoft released Windows CE in November 1996 as a new version of Windows. Designed for pocket-sized computers, CE brought the user-friendly Windows 95 interface to mobile computing for the first time. The architecture also formed the basis of Microsoft̵

7;s later mobile computing and smartphone products. This is why it was necessary.

A compact, portable version of Windows

Windows CE was needed because full desktop versions of Windows, then largely tied to the Intel x86 CPU architecture, were not practical to run on the pocket-sized devices of the time. As a result, Windows CE represented a very different platform from its desktop OS cousins. It could not run programs designed for Windows 95 or Windows NT.

A Windows CE 3.0 desktop on a Windows HandHeld PC 2000.
A Windows HandHeld PC 2000 desktop, based on Windows CE 3.0.

Windows CE’s design emphasized low power consumption, flash memory storage compatibility, and relatively low memory requirements. It also kept a user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI) similar to Windows 95, complete with the Start menu and even a built-in version of Solitaire.

RELATED: Windows 95 turns 25: when Windows went mainstream

Windows CE was preinstalled as firmware on ROM chips built into portable devices from dozens of vendors, including Compaq, NEC, Hewlett-Packard, LG, and more. Most Windows CE installations also include pocket versions of Microsoft Office applications, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

People could sync their files to desktop PCs running Windows via an RS-232 serial cable or an infrared connection with a special peripheral. Network-based synchronization was also possible later.

Some have speculated that the “CE” in “Windows CE” initially stood for “Consumer Electronics” or “Compact Edition,” but those interpretations were never officially recognized by Microsoft. According to a 1998 Los Angeles Business Journal article, Microsoft opted for a more vague definition, stating, “CE does not represent any concept, but rather implies a number of Windows CE design regulations, including ‘Compact, Connectable, Compatible, and Companion.’ ‘CE’ simply means ‘CE’.

The origin of Windows CE

In the early 1990s, a new class of computers began to take shape: the personal digital assistant (PDA). Most PDAs were battery-powered, pocket-sized devices with touch screen stylus interfaces and RAM or flash storage.

As with any emerging computer trend, Microsoft wanted to get in on the action. However, the Intel x86 processors required to run desktop versions of Windows required too much power for a pocket-sized device.

So Microsoft started experimenting with possible solutions, including a brand new operating system that would run on low-energy CPUs.

A Windows CE 1.0 desktop.
A Windows CE 1.0 desktop.

Windows CE grew out of one such project, code-named Pegasus. It was developed in 1995 by a team that included members of Microsoft’s previous mobile OS projects such as WinPad.

Pegasus’s design goal was to provide a capable, 32-bit multitasking, multi-thread pocket version of Windows. It had to work well on various processor architectures, including SH3, MIPS and later ARM. Unlike most PDAs at the time, Microsoft also intended Windows CE to be used with a full QWERTY keyboard.

Windows CE 1.0 officially launched on November 16, 1996. According to BYTE In the January 1997 issue of magazine, the first devices in the US to ship with Windows CE were the NEC MobilePro 200, the Compaq PC Companion (a new version of the Casio Cassiopeia A-10, also available at the time), and the LG Electronics HPC.

All three devices sold for about $ 650 (about $ 1,063 in today’s money).

An HP 320LX handheld PC.
The HP 320LX (1997), a popular HPC with Windows CE 1.0. HP

The press was not exactly enamored with Windows CE 1.0 devices, but few critics thought they were flops. A loyal fan base quickly emerged, especially for HP’s highly regarded line of palmtop PCs.

Microsoft continued to improve CE over time, with a dramatic jump in capacity from 1.0 to 2.x, including support for larger color displays and better networking. This iteration was well received by both consumers and the press.

The Windows CE brand name explosion

What started in 1996 as a simple operating system for pocket computers quickly grew into a PDA operating system for “Pocket PC” devices. These pocket PCs initially ran Windows CE 2.11, which later turned into the operating system for smartphones and a lot more.

Two HP iPaq rx1955 pocket PCs and a stylus.
The HP iPaq rx1955 Pocket PC (2007) ran on Windows Mobile 5.0. HP

After a few years, Microsoft even stopped putting the Windows CE mark on its consumer products. It previously preferred names like the Pocket PC 2000 (April 2000) and Windows Mobile 2003, which were still based on the Windows CE kernel. Even the Windows Phone 7, released in 2010, was still based on Windows CE 6.0.

Understanding the full line of Windows CE and its offshoots is a dazzling prospect. It spans over 24 major releases, with many confusing interchangeable or interlocking brand names, including all of the following (and more):

  • Pocket computer
  • Windows Mobile Classic
  • Windows SmartPhone
  • Pocket PC Phone edition
  • Windows Mobile Professional
  • Windows Automotive
  • Windows phone

The CE line has remained a fundamental product for Microsoft. Over the past 24 years, Windows CE has powered devices as varied as ATMs, car entertainment systems, the Zune MP3 player, and dozens of games for the Sega Dreamcast console.

A Sega Dreamcast game system box.
Windows CE has powered more than 70 games on the Sega Dreamcast console. Sega

Currently Windows CE is officially known as ‘Windows Embedded Compact’. The last release (version 8.0) was in 2013 and will be supported until 2023. Over time, Microsoft has focused on Embedded Compact in favor of XP Embedded, followed by NT Embedded, Windows RT and now Windows 10 for ARM.

Frankly, it’s a wonder that even Microsoft manages to keep it all straight. Nonetheless, CE lives on in many industries, and will likely continue to do so for at least a decade in mission-critical embedded systems with legacy code.

If you have time to wrap your head around the full scope and majesty of the Windows CE family, check out HPCFactor’s in-depth history of the operating system. For now, the soul of Windows CE continues to sweep in the background, doing its embedded thing on devices around the world.




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