Windows CE reaches end of life, if not end of sales
Some loved it, some laughed at it, but it survived 26 years
Microsoft's dedicated OS for embedded and pocket devices, Windows CE, has reached the end of its support lifetime. People's reactions are very mixed, depending on where they're from.
Windows CE – and there's never been an official explanation of what the WinCE-inducing name stood for – debuted in November 1996, just a few months after Windows NT 4, the first version of NT with the Explorer desktop from Windows 95.
Earlier this month, as reported by HPC Factor, the last ever version, CE 8, branded Compact Embedded 2013, reached its end of support. In 2011, Microsoft said it would be replaced by a unified platform based on Windows 8, but we know how well that went down. By 2020, the official migration path was set – to a container on top of Win10 IoT.
Its fortunes have always fluctuated. In 1999, we asked does MS care about WinCE? By 2003, we reported that eTForecasts said it would outship PCs. Indirectly, the researchers were right – smartphones did end up massively outselling PCs. They just weren't Microsoft ones.
The early 1990s was a boom time for pocket-sized computers, with multiple brands and families getting in on the game. Windows CE's genesis lay in chasing one style of device, but then switched track to pursue another fast-growing niche.
The Reg covered one type of device when we looked at ten ancestors of the netbook a decade ago. Very early iterations such as the DIP/Atari Portfolio were very constrained, but in 1991, HP's calculator division offered the HP 95LX, a pocket-sized DOS PC with Lotus 1-2-3. Over on this side of the pond, Psion's Series 3 came along some five months later with a (keyboard-operated) GUI and multitasking.
Both were based on NEC's Intel-compatible low-power CPUs – the 95LX on the V20, with an 8-bit data bus like the 8088, and the Series 3 on the V30 with an 8086-style 16-bit bus.
It took a few years for Windows 95 to bring its user interface game up to speed, and back then you couldn't fit the 386-class CPU and hard disk that 95 required into a pocket-sized device that would run on two AA batteries.
Enter stage left, Windows CE 1.0. A whole new OS for various low-power RISC CPUs, including MIPS and Hitachi SuperH. The first Windows CE devices launched in 1996 aimed at the palmtop PC segment: Casio's Cassiopeia A-10 and the NEC MobilePro 200.
The rise of the 'scribble thing'
In the meantime, though, the handheld market had been evolving in a different direction. First came the Apple Newton in 1993, which was an amazing design and showed the potential of a handheld "personal digital assistant" – without actually being a very good one itself (The Reg FOSS desk owns two of the things). Although Apple fixed this in NewtonOS 2, the original Newtons could only read cursive, not print, and they had to learn their owner's handwriting – making it almost impossible to effectively try a friend's, or a shop demo unit.
That led to a third-party replacement text-entry system for the Newton, Palm's Graffiti, which ended up evolving into a separate device, the Palm Pilot 1000. This launched in 1996, just slightly before WinCE Palm PCs came to market. Famously originally a wooden mockup, they're described and pictured in our Newton story above. The Palm Pilot 1000 was deliberately much smaller, simpler, and cheaper than the Newton, and was designed to be tethered to a PC or Mac, from which it let you take your address book and diary with you. These simple little monochrome gadgets were a big hit, with millions of units sold.
- When product names go bad: Microsoft's Raymond Chen on the cringe behind WinCE
- Just can't let go of those Windows CE apps? Microsoft has a container for that
- MS has yet another crack at handheld PCs
- Does MS care about WinCE, or is the browser the platform?
That sort of success attracted Microsoft's interest, and by 2000 led to what we described as Microsoft having yet another crack at handheld PCs – keyboardless palmtops, rather than tiny laptop-style devices, and marketed at "down-the-line MS-supporting systems managers, determined to stamp out Palm Pilots in the name of 'security'."
These did rather better, and led to one of the many rebrands of the OS, as it became Pocket PC 2002, already found on some very early smartphones. Although these were still based on Windows CE, Microsoft was very keen to make it clear that Pocket PC isn't WinCE … although the same OS was underneath.
Gonna get myself connected
Until the iPhone came along, Microsoft smartphones continued to battle PalmOS-based ones, neither much troubling the wider consumer world. In 2005, we subtitled our review of Dell's Axim x50v "the Perfect PDA?" – instantly invoking Betteridge's Law of Headlines: Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word 'no.' Palm devices, as that review noted, remained more responsive, but
Windows CE Pocket PC ones boasted color screens, richer multimedia, and slots for more storage or other gadgetry.
After the iPhone, the smartphone market soon became an A/B choice between iOS or Android. The final major release of a Windows CE-based OS was Windows Phone 7 in 2010. Although "Tango" made it to version 7.8, that was the end of the line. The new Windows Phone 8 was a whole new OS, based on the NT kernel of Windows 8, and very few Windows Phone 7 devices could be upgraded.
Microsoft's off-again then on-again purchase of Nokia's phone division made little difference: Windows Phone was left in a fairly distant third place as the budget option. When this vulture moved to Central Europe in 2014, we soon noticed that while smartphones in general remained rare, most of those we saw were Windows devices. In the West, they also mopped up former BlackBerry users, but a couple of years later we called Windows Phone's market share a rounding error.
The misplaced branding exercise of calling two unrelated OSes "Windows Phone," and selling inexpensive but decently-specced CE-based WP7 devices that couldn't be upgraded to the NT-based WP8, sealed CE's fate. The UI was good, and from personal experience, owners liked it and liked the devices.
The non-Phone version trundled on for a while, used in point-of-sale devices and other embedded hardware, but now its journey is over. Microsoft being the company it is, although there will be no more updates, you can still buy it:
While Windows CE 2013 will reach end of extended support in late 2023, Microsoft will allow license sales to continue for Windows Embedded Compact 2013 until 2028. And of course, Windows CE devices can continue to be used indefinitely. ®