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Windows CE 2.0:
Where does it stand after Year 1?

Slow start, revving up now

Rancho Cordova, CA, Nov 97-- It has as been a year since the Microsoft Windows CE platform was formally unveiled at Fall Comdex 1996. When Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates himself introduced the new operating system at Treasure Island's Theatre du Soleil, excitement and expectations ran high. After the spectacular show, vendors showed their first generation CE devices, and PR people and product managers tirelessly answered questions by the press and those lucky enough to somehow secure an invitation to the grand event.

The following few days gave everyone a chance to examine the new devices. It quickly became obvious that not all of the licensees were ready with their products. Only the NEC MobilePro and the Casio Cassiopeia were actually shipping. The expected big Windows CE rollout therefore became sort of a gradual phase-in, with some of the products not shipping until well into the second quarter of 1997.

This no doubt created some frustration for Casio and NEC who had stuck to Microsoft's schedule and then found themselves playing guinea pig for their more cautious competitors. For example, consumers ignored the memory-impaired 2MB versions, and were put off by the lack of backlighting in some of the initial units. NEC probably didn't sell too many of its 2MB MobilePro 200 units and, in an effort to save the day, quickly unveiled the backlit MobilePro 450. Casio, likewise, didn't do too well with the A-10, and, since even 4MB turned out to be marginal in an HPC, introduced the 6MB A-11+.

It also turned out that Microsoft's initial hardware specifications had been too strict. This resulted in a disappointing uniformity among the first HPCs. There was little to differentiate the Cassiopeia from the NEC MobilePro or the LG Electronics/Hitachi units. Reviewers, including us, scrambled to educate the reading public that there were indeed differences, but the message didn't hit home until the "renegade" units from Philips and Hewlett packard hit the market well into 1997.

Philips, for example, had marched to the beat of a different drummer from day one. This was not only evident in the Velo-1's unique European styling, but also in the company's decision to relegate the Microsoft-mandated PC Card slot to an expansion module and offer two miniature card slots instead. The Velo further differentiated itself with a unique voice-recording feature and a well deserved reputation for speediness. In our tests, the Velo was up to twice as fast as some of its competitors. Philips' decision to go with a softmodem also turned out to be right on the mark. While 28.8 and 33.6 kbps modem cards drained an HPC's two meager AA cells in minutes, you could effortlessly cruise the web for hours on the Velo-1.

HP, too, was among the winners of the first round of the HPC sweepstakes. Its 300 and 320LX models alone offered the ability to directly print from an HPC, leaving the others stuck with this rather peculiar omission of CE 1.0. HP was also prescient in its choice of screen. The HP?s was 640 pixels wide, just like a regular VGA screen. Everyone else's 480 pixel screens soon seemed cramped. HP's significant experience in building palmtop computers was evident in all aspects of the 300/320LX. It somehow seemed more grown up than the others.

Not much was heard from the rest of the initial licensees. Compaq marketed its PC Companion, a rebadged Casio, in a decidedly low key manner and eventually resorted to undercutting the Casio's price. The LG Electronics/Hitachi twins actually had some nice features, such as a slightly larger screen and an internal 28.8 modem option, but they weren't actively marketed and we only saw a few of them.

By mid-1997, things didn't look all that rosy for Windows CE. While the Velo-1 and the 320LX developed somewhat of a following, by and large the verdict about CE and HPCs was dismal. "Not enough memory," "too slow," "screens too small," "icons unreadable," said the buying public that didn't seem to see a need for Windows CE. Yet, for every article trouncing CE there was another that pointed out CE?s strategic importance to Microsoft.

What did Microsoft do in the light of all that? A lot. Redmond's CE group and leadership took a very active role in encouraging developers, listening to feedback, preparing improvements, and generally plotting out the future. A Microsoft CE conference in May was attended by almost 1,000 developers. At that conference, Microsoft unveiled its plans for the future, and part of that future was finally presented to the public as Microsoft Windows CE version 2.0 on September 29 at the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose.

There are numerous changes and improvements in CE 2.0, just like there have always been numerous changes and improvements in each successive version of Windows. There is support for color and direct printing now. There are cascading menus just like in Windows 95. The "pocket" applications have been tweaked and improved and a PowerPoint viewer was added. The whole operating systems is now "componentized," which means that licensees can design products for different purposes by including just the components they need. This, together with Microsoft?s considerably relaxed hardware requirements, points toward a much more diversified future for the Windows CE platform.

There is, however, another aspect of Windows CE that's worth mentioning, and that is its multi-CPU architecture orientation. Unlike desktop Windows PCs that almost exclusively rely on Intel, CE devices have a choice of several chip architectures. Starting out with support for Hitachi's SuperH architecture and two variants of Silicon Graphic's MIPS engine, Windows CE now also supports Intel 486 and Pentium, the PowerPC 821, and soon the ARM architecture. The competition among those chip manufacturers is heavy and this has already resulted in a much welcome "arms race" to deliver faster and more integrated chipsets. This year saw the introduction of much faster versions of the Hitachi SH-3, the Philips TwoChipPic set, and the NEC 4100 family. Eager to join the fray are newcomers Toshiba (with the MIPS-based TX39 family of RISC processors) and Digital (with the StrongARM-1100), as well as AMD with its 486-compatible Elan variants.

All the pieces are therefore in place for the emergence of a much wider variety of hardware, a notion that seems at least partially confirmed as we look at the initial representatives of the second generation of Windows CE devices.

As of this writing, NEC, Philips, LG Electronics, Casio, and HP have all announced new hardware, joined by newcomer Sharp (and others will soon join this group).
All have taken advantage of the faster chipsets.Whereas most of the first generation devices ran at clock speeds between 30 and 40 MHz, the new ones are running at between 54 and 80 MHz. All of the units have more memory. Gone are the underpowered 2MB units. The new hardware offers between 8 and 16MB of RAM, and upgrading memory has become a lot easier with the addition of CompactFlash slots in the new units from NEC, LG Electronics, Casio, and HP.

The dinky little 480x240 screens have generally been dropped in favor of the wider 640x240 format, and everybody now offers backlighting. HP and newcomer Sharp were the first to announce color screens in their Palmtop PC 620LX and Mobilon HC-4500, respectively. We're certain that color screens will soon become a standard, but for the time being they extract a heavy toll on the meager HPC battery packs: While the new Sharp HC-4100 with its monochrome screen runs 25 to 30 hours on a set of NiMH rechargeables, the HC-4500 color version quits after only four to six hours. Many will be willing to pay that price in exchange for a color screen, but it remains a concern, especially since we expect to see full 640x480 VGA screens on CE devices very soon. Either the battery manufacturers cook up a miracle on short order, or HPCs will have to switch to heftier battery packs.

There has been much speculation about the future form factor of HPCs. The small screens and tiny keyboards of the initial devices caused a lot of customer criticism. Handwriting recognition would alleviate the data entry conundrum for some, but the clamshell form factor simply doesn't lend itself well to writing on the screen. As a result, what we're seeing--at least with this class of CE devices--is a move towards larger units. All of the new units are larger than the ones they replace, with the possible exception of the new Casio that actually looks a bit sleeker than the old one. LG Electronics opted for a larger unit with a larger screen, and NEC topped everybody else, at least in the size department, with a big new MobilePro that looks and feels more like a subnotebook than a HPC.

It's also obvious that the licensees are learning from one another. Some of Philips' pioneering features now show up on other devices, such as voice recording (now available on all the other second generation devices) and the softmodem (Sharp and LG). Great attention was also paid to details: The Casio A-20's keyboard is not only larger, but it also provides infinitely better tactile feedback than the A11. The backlights are universally brighter, with HP switching to an especially pleasing "paper-white" backlight.

The new processors, likewise, are being put to good use. The Casio A-20, for example, is more than twice as fast as its predecessor. Another benefit of the faster processors are faster softmodems. Though we never had a complaint about our Velo-1's 19.6 kbps speed, 28.8 kbps in the new Velo and 33.6 kbps in the Casio Mobilon sound even better.

So where do we stand with Windows CE? 2.0 is no doubt a substantial improvement over the initial release, but Microsoft's newest operating system platform remains a work in progress and will likely remain that way for some time to come. With Microsoft declaring its intention to branch from servers, desktops, and notebooks to mobile and embedded systems of all sorts, we'll be seeing lots of growing pains. No one knows yet whether Microsoft's "leverage" argument (i.e. you don?t have to learn something new to program for all those new platforms) is really valid, or whether you can indeed take the root and soul of a desktop operating paradigm and scale it up and down. Some of the biggest criticisms of Windows CE is about the illegibility of its miniaturized Windows interface. It's true that an interface is largely a cosmetic thing, but it's something that has not been adequately addressed in Windows CE yet.

This whole growing process will be very hard on the licensees who'll see their hardware being obsoleted again and again by new versions of CE. The strong will hang in there and eventually reap the benefit of their investments. We, the consumers, will bleed with them as our HPCs will grow old quicker than last year's PC, and we're probably going to be playing the role of unpaid beta testers for some time. But at least, and rest assured of this, it is going to be an exciting time.

- Conrad H. Blickenstorfer