Microsoft released Windows CE in November 1996 as a new version of Windows. Designed to run pocket-sized computers, CE brought the user-friendly Windows 95 interface to mobile computing for the first time. Its architecture also formed the basis of Microsoft’s later mobile computing and smartphone products. Here’s why it was needed.
A Compact, Portable Version of Windows
Windows CE was necessary because full desktop versions of Windows, then tied mostly to the Intel x86 CPU architecture, weren’t practical to run on the pocket-sized devices of the time. As a result, Windows CE represented an entirely different platform from its desktop OS cousins. It couldn’t run programs designed for Windows 95 or Windows NT.
Windows CE’s design emphasized low power usage, compatibility with flash memory storage, and relatively low memory requirements. It also retained a user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI) similar to Windows 95, complete with the Start menu, and even a built-in version of Solitaire.
Windows CE came 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 included pocket versions of Microsoft Office applications, including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
People could synchronize their files with desktop PCs running Windows using an RS-232 serial cable or infrared connection with a special peripheral. Later, network-based syncing was possible as well.
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 nebulous definition, stating, “CE doesn’t represent a single concept, but rather implies a number of Windows CE design precepts, including ‘Compact, Connectable, Compatible, and Companion.'” In the end, “CE” just means “CE.”
The Origins 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-size devices with touch-screen stylus interfaces, and RAM or flash-based storage.
As with any emerging computer trend, Microsoft wanted the be in on the action. However, the Intel x86 processors required to run desktop versions of Windows were too power hungry for a pocket-sized device.
So, Microsoft began experimenting with potential solutions, including a brand-new operating system that would work on low-power CPUs.
The design goal of Pegasus was to provide a capable, 32-bit multitasking, multi-thread pocket version of Windows. It had to run well on several processor architectures, including SH3, MIPS, and later, ARM. Also, unlike most PDAs at the time, Microsoft intended Windows CE to be usable with a full QWERTY keyboard.
Windows CE 1.0 officially launched on Nov. 16, 1996. According to BYTE magazine’s January 1997 issue, the first devices in the U.S. to ship with Windows CE were the NEC MobilePro 200, the Compaq PC Companion (a rebranded version of the Casio Cassiopeia A-10, also available at the time), and the LG Electronics HPC.
All three devices retailed for around $650 (about $1,063 in today’s money).
The press wasn’t particularly enamored with Windows CE 1.0 devices, but still, few critics considered them flops. A loyal fan base soon emerged, especially for HP’s highly regarded series of palmtop PCs.
Microsoft continued to improve CE over time, with a dramatic leap in capability from 1.0 to 2.x that included support for larger color screens and better networking. This iteration was well-received by both consumers and the press.
The Windows CE Brand-Name Explosion
What started as a simple operating system for pocket-size computers in 1996 soon branched out into a PDA operating system for “Pocket PC” devices. These Pocket PCs initially ran Windows CE 2.11, which later morphed into the operating system for smartphones and much more.
In fact, after a few years, Microsoft stopped highlighting the Windows CE brand on its consumer products. Rather, it favored 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.
Trying to grasp the full lineage of Windows CE and its offshoots is a dizzying prospect. It covers over 24 major releases, with many confusing interchangeable or interlocking brand-names, including all of the following (and more):
- Pocket PC
- Windows Mobile Classic
- Windows SmartPhone
- Pocket PC Phone Edition
- Windows Mobile Professional
- Windows Automotive
- Windows Phone
The CE line has remained a bedrock product for Microsoft. Over the last 24 years, Windows CE has powered devices as varied as ATMs, automotive entertainment systems, the Zune MP3 player, and dozens of games for the Sega Dreamcast console.
Currently, Windows CE is officially known as “Windows Embedded Compact.” Its last release (version 8.0) was in 2013, and it will be supported until 2023. Over time, Microsoft has de-emphasized Embedded Compact in favor of XP Embedded, followed by NT Embedded, Windows RT, and now, Windows 10 for ARM.
Honestly, it’s a miracle even Microsoft manages to keep it all straight. Nevertheless, CE lives on in many industries, and probably will continue to for at least a decade in mission-critical embedded systems running legacy code.
If you have time to wrap your head around the full scope and majesty of the Windows CE family, you can check out HPCFactor’s in-depth history of the OS. For now, the soul of Windows CE will continue to chug along in the background, doing its embedded thing on devices around the world.