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Windows CEntral
October 1999

What in the world is Microsoft
(not) doing with Windows CE?

Okay, get ready. Summer is here and Dan Hanttula has lost his cool. No, this has nothing to do with the fact that the weather in California is unbearably hot (albeit nicely dry), or the fact that my birthday is this month and I'm one year closer to the old age home. Rather, I am simply aghast at the fact that Windows CE might just succeed in spite of itself. And if it does, it will ruin us all.

We have all seen analyst projections both glorious and glum for the future of Windows CE. Some say that Palm will continue the reign of handheld computing for the next decade and some say that Windows CE will decimate the empire of pocket computing. Well, for my editorial opinion, regardless of who succeeds, it will end up the same. Microsoft isn't equipped to handle the success or failure of this platform, and I think they know it.

A personal revelation
Why, you may be asking, would a Windows CE editor even take a stance like this? Well, I had a personal transformation a short time ago, a revelation if you will, that made me realize what a fragile environment Windows CE is living in. If you read last month's Windows CEntral, you know how easily Palm cut Microsoft off from the world's largest ISP, America Online. Well, this made me examine the rest of the Windows CE world, to find out just how stable the ground is that Microsoft is walking on.

First of all, I'm tired of hearing Microsoft say, "We had to completely rewrite it." When they first developed Windows CE, they said that they didn't shrink down a desktop OS, they started over. When they released CE v2.0, they completely rewrote the mail client. When they released the Palmsize PC, they rewrote the OS interface and program management. And now I'm hearing reports that they completely rewrote the synchronization software for v3.0. Even more painful to me, is that Mobile Channels, the technology that I have supported personally and professionally, now seems doomed with Microsoft's investment in AvantGo (a competitive mobile Internet content technology that also has Palm's financial endorsement).

Once again, they had to do something over, only this time they're making sure Palm can't pull the rug out from under their feet. As of the next version of the OS, CE will support UDF, USB, DVD, Firewire, UpnP, and a bunch of other technologies that are side benefits of the latest desktop Windows OSes. If you noticed that I didn't bother explaining any of the acronyms, there is a good reason. They don't really matter. After two years of devices, Windows CE has such a short list of peripherals that they should be utterly ashamed. In fact, when you start hearing about a wireless solution for Windows CE in the coming months, it is a hackneyed solution to ward off defectors to the Palm Pilot market. It's too little, too late. If Microsoft has a master plan for Windows CE, it shouldn't require this kind of reworking.

Why is Microsoft so inept with CE?
But even if all this backpedaling does work to gain more marketshare, it will just show the ineptitude of the corporate machine Microsoft has become. The Windows CE team at Microsoft is one of the largest groups on Gate's team, but the division can hardly even keep its own hat on straight. I've continually asked questions to which it's taken weeks or even months to receive a response and, more often than not, the information is incredibly unhelpful. Often no one person at Microsoft knows what's going on enough to even get a straight answer. While it makes my job tougher not being able to get an answer, I can only imagine what a user in need of support has to go through.

But, end users aside, I receive far too many complaints from programmers about how difficult Microsoft has made Windows CE development. From having to learn a slightly different tool kit after a slightly different tool kit to a lack of educational materials and support, significant headaches in porting/converting existing applications to Windows CE, increasingly reluctant third party developers don't have (or don't want to commit) the resources to develop for Windows CE. And all of that, of course, leads to the biggest problem of all: a disheartening lack of third party CE support and products. But that's an old argument and you've heard it before.

In fact, all of this is getting old. Microsoft has to start being the leader, the innovator in handheld computing systems. Copying their successes from other platforms and simply porting applications to Windows CE isn't enough. They've made three software revisions and three different platforms for handheld computing. It is time for the functionality of the devices to become the focus, and the importance of the users and the developers to be recognized.

This issue marks my third year of service with Pen Computing. Two years ago, my editors recognized the hopelessness of the Magic Cap operating system and they offered me the opportunity to cover the Windows CE platform. I never thought I'd find another platform that engaged me as much as Magic Cap did, but Windows CE has exceeded even my most critical reservations. I would hate to have the same thing happen again and finding myself covering another doomed operating platform. I joked to Shawn Barnett, our new Palm Pilot editor, that some day, when Palm fails, he'd be working for me. But, now that I've had a little time to examine the playing field, I think I'm going to start being a lot nicer to him. Just in case that Microsoft manages to bungle CE and I'll be working for him.

-Dan Hanttula

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