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Through the Looking Glass: Doing Windows on the Palmtop

Through the Looking Glass: Doing Windows on the Palmtop

Ed discusses the pros and cons of running Windows 3.0 on the HP Palmtop.

By Ed Keefe

If you've thought about running Microsoft Windows on your Palmtop read this article. It will give you some insights into the problems that you'll encounter.

After you've read the article, you may decide that the problems are not worth solving and you'll save a lot of time and money in the process.

Some Background

In the 1996 book PC In Your Pocket!, on page 11, we stated:

"The Palmtop will not normally run Windows. Granted, some users have shoehorned Windows 3.0 onto the Palmtop. They've declared the results of their experimenting as interesting but not very useful."

In the past four years some things have changed for the better. We now have Palmtops that run at twice normal speed and have C: drives with up to 64MB of disk space.

These hardware innovations have encouraged more users to resurrect copies of Windows 3.0 and try running them on their upgraded machines. With the extra memory on their C: drive they found that they didn't have to shoehorn the program into the Palmtop: there was plenty of room. With a double speed Palmtop, they found that much of Windows runs at an acceptable speed.

The hardware may have changed but the consensus of those who have tried Windows on the Palmtop remains the same. Most of the experimenters agree that Windows on the Palmtop does have a "gee-whiz" value but its usefulness is minimal.

More than a year ago, David Lawrence proposed an article for The HP Palmtop Paper on how to install and use Windows 2.03 on the Palmtop. His reason for using Windows 2.03 was to share documents and spreadsheets between his desktop machine and his Palmtop without the hassle of converting the documents from one format to another. Since legal copies of Windows 2.03 were extremely hard to find we put the article on hold.

A later version of Windows (ver 3.0) was more readily available. Several people had copies of the program from recycled PC/AT computers and it seemed that Windows 3.0 might be an alternative to the Palmtop's built-in System Manager. Both programs can do task-switching and the Windows environment might appeal to users who like the way that Windows does things.

To make things easy for first time Windows users, Stephan Peichl wrote a set of instructions for configuring Windows 3.0 to work on the Palmtop. He also wrote a small program, SLEEPON, that configured the Palmtop's screen for Windows operation.

Several users tried Stephan's approach and reported success. They then tried adding other Windows programs to the mix and found that very few, if any, of these programs worked. The usual error message was that the program would not work in Real mode and required the Standard or Enhanced mode of operation. A brief explanation of this terminology is in order.

When Win 3.0 first came to market, the computer industry was in its usual state of flux. Many people still had older PCs with 8088 CPUs. The standard computer, at the time, was a PC/AT with an 80286 CPU. Intel 80386-based computers were relatively new.

The folks at Microsoft tried to accommodate all three markets. They made sure that Windows 3.0 could run on a PC/XT. This mode of operation was called "Real mode." It only required 640K bytes of conventional (real) memory and a mouse.

The next mode of operation was called "Standard mode" and required an 80286 CPU and extended memory. Finally the 386- "Enhanced mode" required an 80386 CPU.

Since the Palmtop has an 80186 CPU it is limited to the Real mode of operation. This means that, for a Windows-based program to work on the Palmtop it must run under Windows and both programs must fit in 640K bytes of memory.

There were a few programs written for Windows 2.0 that could use this Real mode of operation and Microsoft sold Word for Windows and Excel, a spreadsheet, that both worked in Real mode. Each program cost $495.00 at the time. Of the hundreds of other programs designed to run under Win 3.0, only a few were able to run in Real mode.

Before people could raise a cry for more Real mode programs, the PC world had moved to 386 computers and Windows 3.1 had entered the market. Real mode Windows programming was all but abandoned.

It was our hope that we would be able to offer Windows 3.0 along with Word, Excel and several other Real mode programs to the Palmtop community so that both beginners and old hands could use them.

First Problem: Finding a Legal Copy of Windows 3.0

Before offering Windows 3.0 we needed a source for legal copies of the program.

Hal Goldstein, the publisher of The HP Palmtop Paper, took on the challenge of getting Microsoft to revive the Windows 3.0 program and let Thaddeus Computing sell licenses for the program.

For the better part of a year Hal negotiated with the marketing and legal departments in Redmond, WA. All to often he found himself dealing with people who had never heard of the HP 200LX. He had to explain again and again why we wanted to use Win 3.0 and not Win 95/98.

In the end, Microsoft agreed to let Thaddeus Computing sell a limited version of the product. The catch was that we would have to write our own Users' Manual since the Microsoft manual was a separate product and could not be duplicated.

Hal also asked Microsoft for permission to sell the Real mode versions of Word and Excel. Microsoft had a one-word response to that request: "No!"

At this point, no one at Thaddeus Computing had a legal copy of Windows 3.0. That's when fate stepped in. Hal and I found two shrink-wrapped copies of Win 3.0 in a curio-shop in Fairfield, Iowa. The total cost for both copies: $10.00!

Was this "too good to be true?" Yes. It took us the better part of an afternoon to convert the software from five 5.25-inch disks to 3.5-inch disks and test the integrity of all the files. Now that we had legal copies of the software we were ready for the next challenge.

Second Problem: Mouse or No Mouse

Some people claim that you can use Windows 3.0 without a mouse. I maintain that without a mouse, you'll have an experience akin to driving a car without a steering wheel. You'll get just so far before you have to stop. I had to decide on what pointing device to use and how to get it to work on the Palmtop. My choices were a standard mouse, a trackball device or a touch pad. A mouse would work but needed a flat surface. A trackball would also work but they were hard to come by. After a couple weeks of experimenting, I settled on a Cirque Easy Cat touch pad. The touch pad is stationary and requires little room on a desktop or car seat. It doesn't need a flat surface and it's available for a nominal cost through most mail-order catalogs. The Cirque Easy Cat does not come with any mouse software so I tried various mouse drivers to get it to work on the Palmtop. Only later did I discover that the touch pad worked fine using the Windows built-in mouse driver.

Third Problem: Installation Woes

Once I had the touch pad working, it was time to install Windows.

I tried installing the program according to the instructions from Stefan Peichl and David Lawrence. Sad to say, their directions did not apply to the version of Windows that we had. Their directions mentioned using an EXPAND program that was nowhere to be found. Our version insisted on using the SETUP program so that it could detect the type of screen and how much memory was available.

I tried installing Win 3.0 on a desktop computer on the assumption that I could transfer a pre-installed version to the Palmtop. I was wrong. Installing the program on a desktop computer and transferring the files to the Palmtop resulted in an error message that said in effect "this is not an original installation of Windows." The program would go no further.

It was best to let the SETUP program have its way. This meant freeing up 6 M bytes on both the C: and A: drives of my Palmtop, copying all the files from the five installation disks to the A: drive on the Palmtop and running the SETUP program from there.

This approach worked smoothly and resulted in a C:\WIN directory containing about 170 files consuming approximately 4.5M bytes of disk space on the C: drive. To reduce the number of files, I started renaming one file at a time and restarting Windows. If Windows ran, I deleted the file. That was another mistake. Windows might start but it would often die when I tried to run one of the built-in applications. I reinstalled Windows again and adopted the motto "if it works, don't fix it."

Fourth Problem: Memory Considerations

To give Windows as much room as possible, I set it up to run in a separate Software Carousel session.

Others Windows users who do not have Software Carousel use MAXDOS or use the [MORE, MENU, Applications, Terminate all... ] command to get the maximum amount of memory for Windows.

Actually, using MAXDOS or quitting System Manager might be a better way to run Windows. My reason for choosing to use a SC session was to let me switch between a System Manager session and the Windows session without losing my place in either session. However, when I switched to the System Manager session and then back to the Windows session, the touch pad no longer worked. I had to shut Windows down and restart it to get the touch pad working again. This practice sometimes caused Windows to lock up the machine with the error message "wrong DOS version. MS-DOS 3.1 or better required." Since the Palmtop uses MS-DOS 5.0, this error message made no sense. Perhaps Windows only sees the COMMAND.COM stub program in the D:\DOS directory and gets confused. Who knows?

I also noticed that when I opened a DOS box in Windows the screen "colors" would be reversed and would stay that way when the DOS box was closed. If I tried to run a DOS program, e.g. PalEdit, from within Windows, and then quit the program, I would get the error message that I was using the wrong DOS version and the Palmtop would lock up.

Further Problems

As long as I didn't try switching from one SC session to another, I could put the built-in applications through their paces. The Paint Brush program worked well but it was difficult to determine what all the tiny tool-icons represented. The calculator functioned just like the calculator in every version of Windows I've used. The File Manager proved to be a real challenge. To copy a file from one disk to another I had to open four windows on the screen and move the cursor from one to the other without disturbing any of the underlying windows.

The Write word processor turned out to be less than ideal. Even on a double speed machine, typing was agonizingly slow. After every keypress the whole paragraph would redraw itself, letter by letter, on the screen.

To make Windows a worthwhile product, we proposed bundling as many shareware and freeware programs as possible with the Windows program. To expedite the search for more applications, I found a book/disk called Windows Gizmos that contained over fifty different games, utilities, text editors, data bases and financial managers purportedly designed for Windows 3.0. I anticipated that 50 programs would make up for the inability to offer the Word and Excel programs. Perhaps one or more of these programs would turn out to be a "killer app."

Sad to say only three of the fifty programs worked in Real mode. The rest required Standard mode or better and many required an EGA or VGA screen.

We searched the Internet far and wide for Real mode programs but came up empty handed.


We originally thought that the goal of turning Windows 3.0 into a turnkey program for the Palmtop would be a worthwhile project. We hoped that Win 3.0 would be useful especially to new users who could start with a familiar operating environment while learning the nuances of System Manager and MS-DOS on the Palmtop.

However, it appears that Windows 3.0 is a tool for power user's rather than beginners. Getting the hardware and software properly configured is a challenge worthy of any software experimenter. The sense of accomplishment may be reward enough. Windows is definitely not something I would give to a person who is new to the Palmtop or to MS-DOS.

To confirm our belief that Windows is not a good product for the Palmtop, we posed a question on CompuServe and in the HPLX-L news list. We asked for the opinions of those who had used Windows on the Palmtop. We've included their replies in the sidebar for this article.

On the basis of our experience, the opinion of many Palmtop users, and the simple economics of the situation, Thaddeus Computing has decided not to pursue the development of a Windows 3.0 product.

If you want to explore Windows on your own and do not already have a copy of Win 3.0, look on several of the World Wide Web auction sites for copies of Windows 3.0, Word for Windows 2.0 and Excel 2.0. I have a hunch that the cost of all three programs will be far less than the cost we would have had to charge for a commercial product.

What Others Say About Windows on the Palmtop

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