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User to User: HP Announces a Windows CE-based Palmtop

User to User: HP Announces a Windows CE-based Palmtop

Microsoft and HP join forces with five other companies to build up the Palmtop PC market and make Windows CE the standard handheld operating system. Will you want to give up your 200LX?

By Hal Goldstein, Executive Editor, The HP Palmtop Paper

 Microsoft Windows CE desktop

 Information at your fingertips

For years Microsoft's founder and CEO, Bill Gates, has talked about "information at your fingertips." Microsoft has taken a large step towards that vision becoming a reality with the recent announcement of Windows CE, their new Windows 95-look-alike operating system for handheld computers. In that announcement Microsoft stated that HP along with Casio, NEC, Lucky Goldstar, Compaq, and Phillips will introduce Windows CE handheld products starting in December of this year. HP's product is expected mid-1997.

Hitachi Ltd., NEC Electronics, and Phillips Semiconductor will supply 32-bit RISC microprocessors for these Windows CE machines. Forty leading software, hardware, and wireless vendors have committed to developing third party products for these Windows CE devices. In addition, our company, Thaddeus Computing will be publishing a magazine supporting the HP Windows CE Palmtop PC and possibly other Windows CE devices.

According to Microsoft VP, Craig Mundie, "Our goal with Windows CE is to create an open, standards-based platform that will enable third parties to build products around them."

What will Windows CE handheld PCs have in common

Here's, at minimum, what we can expect with all Windows CE handheld PC's:

  • The look and feel of Windows 95 (see illustration of the Windows CE desktop at the top of this page);
  • The ability to seamlessly synchronize, communicate, and exchange information with Windows 95-based PCs;
  • Standard communications support enabling access to the Internet for e-mail and Web browsing;
  • Estimated street prices for base configurations around $500- $700;
  • Keyboard with alphanumeric, punctuation keys, Ctrl, Alt and two Shift keys;
  • Touch screen, 480 X 240 pixels, 4 gray-scales, 2 bits per pixel. (HP's machine will be 640 x 240 pixels);
  • Cordless plastic pen that acts like a mouse when tapped on touch screen;
  • Docking cradle that will recharge batteries and connect to desktop;
  • Maximum size, 7" x 4" x 1" (17.8 x 10.2 x 2.5 cm), to fit into your jacket pocket;
  • One PCMCIA slot;
  • One serial connector;
  • One infrared (IrDA) port;
  • 2 MB of RAM for file storage and running applications;
  • 4 MB of ROM for operating system and built-in software;
  • Microsoft Pocket Word;
  • Microsoft Pocket Excel;
  • An information manager that includes Calendar, Contacts and Tasks, plus accessories and utilities that include a two-city world clock, a calculator and solitaire.
  • Internet Explorer (HTML 2.0 compatible) with TCP/IP stack;
  • Battery: depends on platform;
  • User can configure RAM between system memory and electronic disk;
  • Long file names supported;
  • User-upgradeable ROMs. When a new version of Windows CE or built-in applications becomes available a new ROM will be released. Users can replace their existing ROM with the new one;
  • Automatic power-off with resume where you left off.

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What's inside

What follows is some information about what goes on inside Windows CE. To become a developer, e-mail wcedev@microsoft. The best description of the system as of this writing is Jeffrey Richter's Windows CE review in the October 1996, Microsoft Systems Journal.

Windows programmers will be able to use familiar off-the-shelf tools and a comprehensive subset of Win32 API to develop and port over Windows applications. To keep the kernel small many Win32 functions are not implemented.

The Windows CE operating system is:

  • 32-bit, multitasking, multithreaded;
  • Open architecture design which provides support of a number of devices;
  • Compact which provides high performance in limited memory configurations;
  • Scalable which supports a range of embedded, mobile or multimedia product lines;
  • Portable which provides choice in microprocessors (source code must be recompiled using software switch provided in SDK for each microprocessor);
  • Integrated power management which enables long battery life.

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Windows CE includes native support for the TCP/IP and PPP protocols, not only making Windows CE devices mobile Internet terminals, but also enabling developers to create or port any number of industry standard applications to the platform, restrained only by the physical resources of the system.

Windows CE itself requires 150KB of ROM and 400KB of RAM to run. Like the HP Palmtop, ROM based applications run mostly out of ROM and use very little of the RAM system memory.

There is no mouse support since there is no mouse. Using the stylus (pen), the user can tap on the display and move directly to any location.

The entire file system is always compressed to conserve RAM. There are no cluster sizes, so space is not wasted when storing files. In other words the file system is customized for size, not speed.

Embedded into the Windows CE operating system is database support. (The HP 200LX makes good use of a database engine for built-in applications, Phone, NoteTaker, Database, Appointment Book, and World Time. However the HP 200LX database engine is an application, it's not built-into the operating system.) Having built-in data base support means that both built-in Windows CE PIMs and external applications (such as, Pocket Quicken) can make use of this built-in functionality. The advantage to the user is that data transfer and synchronization between Windows CE machines and Windows desktops will be well-supported across a variety of applications.

Power management is similar to the HP 200LX the processor is suspended most of the time even with the system on.

An operating system that's not just for PCs

In the long term, Microsoft plans to use the "kernel" of the Windows CE operating system for other computer-based consumer electronic devices. Examples of future Windows CE devices might include "wallet" PCs, wireless pagers and cellular smart phones, next-generation entertainment and multimedia consoles, Internet access TV's, Internet Web phones, Global Positioning Systems for the car, plus other household appliances. Microsoft defines Windows CE as, "an open, scalable Windows platform for a range of communications, entertainment, and mobile-computing devices that can communicate with each other, share information with Windows-based PCs, and connect to the Internet." This positioning gives Windows CE many markets to conquer.

Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft collaboration

Microsoft and HP will be working together to make the Windows CE platform a success and the standard handheld operating system. If any industry force can make the palmtop PC category viable, these two companies can. HP, the inventor of the pocket calculator, brings with it 25 years of hardware know-how, a reputation for quality and integrity, and scores of popular handheld products. Microsoft brings operating system expertise and its PC market-domination. In addition, both Microsoft and HP bring a great deal of complimentary hi-tech marketing expertise, experience, and success.

HP's endorsement of Windows CE gives Windows CE needed credibility. (Microsoft's first attempt at a palmtop PC Windows-based operating system, WinPad, failed). Microsoft-HP engineering collaboration can only help guarantee that Microsoft create an operating system that works.

Microsoft's marketing influence (along with HP's desire to create a palmtop PC standard) can already be seen by the fact that HP has already announced its Windows CE-based product (due out in mid-1997) HP rarely pre-announces products. More importantly, Microsoft hype, clout, and established relationships with Windows 95 third party developers will mean that Microsoft has a strong running start to make its Windows 95-like operating system the standard handheld PC operating system. Most importantly, Microsoft has demonstrated again and again that it has staying power in the industry and is not afraid to make mistakes. One only has to look at the evolution of Windows, Word, Excel, and now Internet Explorer to see that it follows the Thomas Edison model of inventing. (Edison reportedly failed with over 1000 experiments before discovering how to make the light bulb work.)

It could be that Microsoft and its Windows CE partners get it right the first time. However, whatever the first products look like, we will see many advancements as technologies mature and the marketplace provides feedback. Look at how much the HP Palmtop developed from the original 512K HP 95LX.

Not just Microsoft and HP

For Windows CE to be the standard operating system for the palmtop PC, HP needs its Windows CE competitors to be successful. A successful Windows CE creates a bigger pie for everyone. Once the great mass of individual and corporate PC owners understand the value and power of having a palmtop PC, there is plenty of room for competition. HP justifiably feels that it is well-positioned to compete in the palmtop PC marketplace once there really is a market.

Third party manufacturers will play a fundamental role in making Windows CE the standard. Once third parties believe that Windows CE will be the handheld PC standard operating system, they will commit the resources necessary to develop for it. Third party software and hardware companies along with publications such as ours supporting Windows CE hasten marketplace acceptance of palmtop PCs as legitimate, useful, and already-working products. Third parties create vertical solutions which will sell and legitimize palmtop PC's. Individuals and companies can feel comfortable buying palmtop PC's when they understand a whole industry of manufacturers and third party developers are there to support them and provide "out-of-the-box" solutions. Lots of third parties also mean that many companies will be working to increase the sales of palmtop PC's.

Correct positioning essential for success

For the palmtop PC to be successful it must be positioned correctly. As we have written about for the past three years, it should not be described as an expensive organizer. It also isn't a handwriting expert or a "PDA" - a category that failed. What it is, is a convenient, always available, pocket-sized computer that allows you to do 80% of what you want to do on a desktop or laptop. Wherever you are it lets you organize your time, store and retrieve information, manipulate numbers and words, send and receive e-mail. HP and Microsoft would probably add that it lets you synchronize and then carry desktop PC information anywhere. In other words in the majority of situations, the palmtop PC is a convenient, inexpensive, power-efficient computer-alternative to a laptop.

Major corporations such as HP, Apple and Sony must be disappointed by how slowly the general marketplace has adopted handhelds, palmtops, PDAs, organizers or whatever you want to call them. I believe that part of the problem is that people don't know what to call them that the category is not singularly named or well-defined.

When HP introduces its Windows CE machine, it will stick with the HP 200LX's "palmtop PC" and "PC companion" names. I am glad HP is staying with "palmtop PC". The name tells much of the story, and HP can build on its leadership of the palmtop PC market. I don't especially like "PC companion" because that doesn't differentiate the HP product from the non-PC, pen-based organizer products such as the popular US Robotics Pilot. "Companion" also implies that the HP Palmtop cannot be used as a stand-alone product.

Time to trade in the HP 200LX?

How does the HP 200LX and 700LX fit into the equation. Should we give up our HP Palmtop as soon as the HP Windows CE machine (or one of its competitor's) come out? It depends.

First of all, it depends on how good the first release is. My guess is that it will be on par with the original HP 95LX, maybe even a little better. The HP 95LX was a breakthrough-machine with Lotus 1-2-3 built-in and a useable set of PIMs (personal information management software). The machine itself was a little buggy, too limited in memory and PC card support, sported DOS but only in 40 columns, and PIMs that could have been stronger. However, there was nothing like it on the marketplace and gadget fans as well as those who could envision the practical potential of such a device were extremely pleased. Later releases of the HP 95LX and subsequently the HP 100LX and 200LX addressed most of these original limitations.

Second, you have to consider how important desktop Windows 95 applications are to you. If you heavily depend on Windows 95 and are used to applications such as MS Word, Excel, and popular third party applications, then you will probably want to give the HP Windows CE palmtop PC a good look. On the other hand if you still use DOS (or maybe even Windows 3.11), you might want to wait. Windows CE machines will not run DOS applications and will not link to or synchronize with Windows 3.x or Windows NT systems.

Third, a wealth of third party solutions have emerged to support the mature HP 200LX PC. Many of us have customized our Palmtop and know the machine inside out. It will take some time before the base of applications and vertical solutions are available for this new platform.

Fourth, you have to look at your own temperament and attitude towards new technologies. Many of us like to experiment with new gadgets for their own sake and to see if they can make us more productive and effective. Others of us like to wait until there is a proven solution with lots of third party support let others do the pioneering work and find the bugs. Actually most of us live in both camps. I still use DOS applications such as WordPerfect 5.1 and Lotus 1-2-3 because I know the products, they do almost everything I need on a day-to-day basis, and I don't like taking the time to learn new products. On the other hand I couldn't wait to get my hands on the original HP 95LX (even apart from my professional interest).

Finally, you must consider the time you've invested in organizing your data for the Palmtop. HP has promised a data upgrade path for HP Palmtop users at least for the Phone and Appointment books. That means you will be able to import your most important HP Palmtop data into the HP Windows CE machine. How effortless the process is remains to be seen and depends to some degree on how compatible the underlying database model for the HP Windows CE machine is with the HP 200LX. (HP 95LX users may recall that the HP 100LX could read HP 95LX phone book data. However, since the HP 100LX and 200LX had more phone fields than the HP 95LX, some of the translation had to be done by hand, by cutting and pasting.)

In upcoming issues of The HP Palmtop Paper we will examine in detail the question of whether HP 100LX/200LX users should switch to the HP Windows CE palmtop PC. In fact, the next issue will run an interview with Khaw Kheng Joo, the head of the HP handheld division, which may shed some light on the subject. In any event, as soon as the product is introduced we will provide detailed hands-on reviews of the new Windows CE machine from the point of view of existing Palmtop users.

HP still committed to the 200LX

In the meantime HP continues to be quite committed to the HP 200LX platform. The announcement on page 12 about the HP wireless solution using the Palmtop is one example of this commitment. That commitment is also shown by the fact that HP is now actively targeting specific markets such as medicine and sales where the HP 200LX today provides a practical, economic, proven solution. A final example of HP's commitment to the HP 200LX was that HP demonstrated a new Windows to HP 100LX/200LX connectivity and synchronization solution at the November Comdex trade show. Expect more details about this new HP Connectivity product and its release date next issue.

All in all next year will be an interesting year for HP Palmtop aficionados.

What's special about HP's Windows CE machine

HP Provides 100/200LX Palmtop Users with a Complete Two-Way Wireless E-mail Solutions

iPhone Life magazine


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