nec-mobileproLong before the first Asus Eee PC, OLPC XO Laptop, or even the Psion netbook, there were handheld PCs running DOS and Windows CE. They were popular with a small group of tech enthusiasts in the 90s and the early part of this decade, but they sort of fizzled out long before the netbook craze started.

These old proto-netbooks offered stellar battery life and instant on/off capabilities, but ran stripped down operating systems with stripped down apps like web browsers and office suites. Probably the biggest problem is that over the last 10 years more and more of our computing needs have moved online, and older handheld PCs like the HP Jornada and NEC MobilePro line didn’t really keep up. Few handheld PCs came with integrated WiFi or 3G capabilities. And more importantly, they didn’t run modern web browsers like Firefox or Internet Explorer 7.

Of course, we’ve seen a ton of development over the last few years on mobile web browsers, showing that it’s possible to design a web browser like Safari, Opera Mobile, or even Internet Explorer Mobile 6 so that you can access modern web pages on machines with low specs. But HP, NEC, Sharp, and the other computer makers who were responsible for early handheld PCs discontinued their work on the form factor to focus on computers and cellphones.

But now the rise of the netbook has people thinking about reviving Windows CE as a mobile platform for mini-laptops with full keyboards. We’re starting to see companies working on new netbook-style devices with ARM processors instead of Intel or VIA x86 CPUs. These ARM-based machines will draw significantly less power than x86-based netbooks, which could lead to fantastic battery life. But you can’t run Windows XP, Vista, or 7 on a computer with an ARM chip. That pretty much means these upcoming netbooks will be running Google Android or some form of Linux. They could run Windows CE, but it appears Microsoft isn’t really spending much time focusing on Windows CE for ARM-based netbooks.

There could be a number of reasons for this. Microsoft might not want to annoy Intel, a company it works very closely with. Or Microsoft may be too busy trying to figure out how to make sure as many netbooks as possible will come preloaded with Windows 7, an operating system that could potentially be much more lucrative for Microsoft than Windows CE. Not only do Windows 7 licenses cost more, but the company sells a number of applications including Microsoft Office that will run on Windows 7. Windows CE comes with an extremely limited mobile version of Office.

The point is, while we’re likely to start seeing ARM-based netbooks popping up over the next year or so, I wouldn’t expect to see many of them running Windows CE. Or if they do, they may be running a rather old and outdated version of the OS.

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17 replies on “Microsoft not throwing weight behind Windows CE for netbooks”

  1. To this day, I still used my Palmtops. They range from a Psion 5, Psion netBook, HP 620lx and others.

    Except for the (stupid) Windows CE “Netbooks”, there’s been nothing else out there that could preform like my old Psion netBook.

  2. I loved my MobilePro I convinced work to buy for me. I would show up to a meeting and could type away and keep notes without dealing with decyphering my own handwriting and then transcribing it to myself later. Why the MobilePro vs. a laptop? It actually turned on when I hit the power button.

    I even put GIS software on it (arcpad) and hooked up a GPS unit (eTrex) and did some real-time mapping and analysis.

    Then I went and bought a Wifi card and found the real horrors of Windows CE and whatever version of internet explorer it had. Holy cow was any internet use a waste of time.

    I ever knew of an organization that used these for training purposes, creating a wireless network and going at it. This was when the MobilePro was cheap since nobody was buying them.

    The ‘light’ operating system with full compatability back to my desktop, instant on and the ability to find applications (windows CE apps) made me a huge fan. The confused looks from security personnel over ‘what kind of laptop is this’ was annoying to deal with. I always used to tell people it was a glorified palm pilot but the ‘full’ keyboard made it actually useful.

    Loved the platform. Loved the concept. Hate that it is, essentially, dead. These netbooks are just slimmed up laptops instead of new platforms as described above.

  3. I don’t really mind what operating system it has. A small, cheap ARM-powered device with a usable keyboard and modern connectivity options would be fantastic. Sadly we only seem to be seeing these devices at trade shows for now.

    (Psion 5MX user – still haven’t found anything better)

  4. I guess there’s just not much need for Windows CE on netbooks.

    The big appeal of Windows XP or 7 is that you can run the same applications on your netbook as on your big laptop or desktop PC at home.

    With CE you can’t – it is also called “Windows” and looks similar, but is really a totally different beast – you need different applications which are specifically built for CE, the selection is very limited, etc. It makes much more sense to go for Linux on ARM instead of spending money on CE.

  5. For the x86 space I hope MS positions XP for the x86 products that would get WinCE in earlier times. That still leaves them not supporting the ARM devices though.

    If the ARM devices do sell at $200 or less, have the claimed battery life and light but full linux (with full browsers and openoffice, IM skype etc) then MS will have a big problem. Not in terms of revenue (how much of the $200 can be for the OS?) but there will be a big market segment dominated by linux and people will get used to it, costing MS in other segments as well.

    On the other hand, having used the netbooks that are tiny, underpowered but full open and functional computers, I don’t think we can ever go back to limited OSs. MS will have to support ARM with a real, and really low-cost OS if it wants to have a chance. Offering WinCE is probably a doomed strategy.

  6. netbook was/is form factor (small), price (low) and portability combined with decent hardware and software. one of the main reasons for the 9′ and 10.x sizes.
    the whole elephantesque growth of size that starts now makes these machines subnotebooks (independent of what hardware sits inside). it’s as simple as that.

  7. Microsoft can only focus on so many things at once and right now it’s clear that they’re frantically trying to get Windows 7 out the door. If anything they’ll probably crank up development of their mobile OS and follow Google’s example with Asus & Android. I’d expect Apple to do the same thing with any netbook they announce… it’ll run something like the iPhone OS on ARM rather than OS X on Intel and that way they won’t cannibalise their higher end sales – it may even act as a telephone over bluetooth/headphones (why not if it has 3G?).

    Anyway Windows CE just doesn’t cut the mustard. Maybe if you got mobile Firefox (Fennec) up and running on it you’d have something but if you can manage that you’d probably just run Linux. Windows 7 lacks instant-on and between extra resource requirements and a limit of 3 applications I think it’ll have a hard time penetrating this market. Time will tell.

    I’ll leave you with a blog post I wrote recently on the subject of netbooks and cloud computing:

    “A netbook (a portmanteau of “Internet Notebook”) is a single-purpose device whose hardware and software is tuned for web browsing. Adequate RAM and CPU are required (as opposed to “abundant”) but minimal local storage and graphics are called for. Indeed in terms of data loss and breaches read/write local storage is a liability!

    Pixels are important though (if not physical screen size) and it’s good to see that devices like MSI’s new 13.4 inch X320 are finally shedding the shackles imposed by vendors like Intel and Microsoft, whereby discount chips and licenses were only offered for physically small devices so as to pigeon hole them and avoid cannibalising premium sales.

    There’s nothing wrong with having an expensive Apple-style netbook (which by shedding features for supporting general-purpose use, like optical drives, magnetic media, graphics hardware, etc. are smaller, cheaper and run longer) and as you will see this year, nothing wrong with having a cheap, truly embedded single-purpose device running Linux on Arm. The third category (basically today’s netbooks) fall somewhere in between.

    I expect the industry to settle on ~13.3 inch ARM devices that run customised linux distributions for a (business) day at a time, for us power users to opt for more capable generic devices and for the distinction between a “netbook” and a “notebook” to blur over the coming years (as it did with the “migration” from laptop to notebook).”

  8. They still work well.

    I have used J720, Sigmarion 3 and still have a Smartbook G138.

    The smartbook displays most web pages perfectly (can run opera 8.65) and does most tasks I require. Wifi or bluetooth is server up via a CF card. And if I ever need real power use then I just rdp into my server which takes 1 second to connect to.

    Apart from games and high end video playback it serves my mobile computing needs nicely.

    You say CE isn’t supporting cortex netbooks but the fact the new WM smartphones are using Cortex’s now I am sure CE will be updated to support cortex commands and as WM sits on CE I dont see the problem. Surely it is up to the OEM or Chip manufacturer to provide the CE BSP, as they did in the past, so really cant see where the change is.

    there is enough software to give CE all the office, email and web support a mini laptop should require.

    Anyway CE, WM, linux or otherwise I am looking forward to the cortex netbooks. I am sure due to lower power usage and no heat problems this will bring HPC sized devices back and at a real nice price.

    John

  9. I kinda see putting Windows CE on a netbook-like device as a step back UNLESS it was offered at a ridiculously low price point. $200 for a WInCE device will never sell considering you can get a cellphone that is more portable for less, and a netbook that is infintiely more powerful for just $50 more. However, if the price was between $99 and $125 and it had a flavor of WinCE maybe even Windows Mobile 6.5 on it, now you’re talking. That type of a system with an Opera or Skyfire browser would be great for low end elderly users and poor or budget minded people and would even be deployable in developing countries to run rings around the OLPC and XO type units. It’s all in the price point folks…

  10. “ong before the first Asus Eee PC, OLPC XO Laptop, or even the Psion netbook, there were handheld PCs running DOS and Windows CE”
    HUH? Anybody heard of Psion Series 3 and Series 3a? Its OS and built-in apps were more powerful than the competition…

    1. That’s why I said the first Psion “netbook,” not the first Psion
      device. Technically, I think HP had the first handheld PC. But Psion
      was definitely one of the earlier innovators in the space. But the
      “netbook” didn’t appear until much later.

  11. these machines worked very well (and still do) together with infrared (modem) equipped to access the internet / fax. They clearly never were meant to substitute desktops or laptops but to offer basic computing options on the go. Therefore these machines also never were considered as independent devices contrary to modern netbooks.

  12. One of these days we will see somebody make a handy sized portable computer that will run 20+ hours on 4 AA batteries, have instant start-up, and do all of the computing tasks that a mobile person needs.

    Oh wait, I just described the TRS-80 Model 100 that I used and abused in the 1980’s. If someone would make an updated version of this machine they would sell millions of them.

    1. “…do all of the computing tasks that a mobile person needs.”

      This sentence would tend to contraindicate the model 100.

      I believe the modern definition of “computing tasks” includes email and web connectivity. And a “mobile person” would need those networking capabilities to be wireless, no?

      1. my psion 5 was doing that in 97 bar the wireless but then in 97 there was no wireless (excluding connecting using irda or cable to a mobile phone and accessing the web that way). for about 5 years psions were my only computer outside work. small powerful, they were designed to do anything your desktop computer could do. spreadsheet, word processing, flat file databases. the pim functionality beats every device i have used since including the current crop of nokias. whenever i meet an expsion user i ask them if they have found anything since that is as good and the answer is always no. but with the lack of modern features such as wifi/bluetooth/cameras we all had to move on.

        however i don’t really need web on my netbooks. i get along fine with the web on my mobile phone when out and about. not to everybodies taste but adequate for me.

        if as the original poster wants something like the trs-80 then try the palm clone alphasmart dana. have been tempted by them myself.

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