Large software projects are invariably shipped later than expected. Operating systems are no exception to this rule, and a quick glance through The Mythical Man-Month will explain why. Thus it did not take too many by surprise when it was announced that the consumer release of Windows Vista would be delayed until January 2007.
Now Microsoft’s junior member of their operating system family has joined the delay party. The company recently admitted that the latest version of Windows CE, version 6.0, would now be released in the first half of 2007. The OS, which was shown to embedded and mobile developers in beta form in May, was originally scheduled for release in the third quarter of this year.
Windows CE has a long and turbulent history. The operating system was originally envisioned in 1992 as part of Microsoft’s Project WinPad. The purpose of WinPad was to create a small device that ran a Windows-like operating system (originally a subset of Windows 3.1) and featured handwriting recognition. After Apple’s Newton showed that hardware technology was not quite up to this task, Microsoft canceled the project in 1994. A new project, Pulsar, which was intended to create a wireless “pager-like” device, was folded in with the remnants of the WinPad group to form the Pegasus project, which shipped the 32-bit Windows CE 1.0 in 1996. Handheld PCs from NEC, Casio, and HP appeared a few months later.
Windows CE 1.0 devices were widely criticized for having a busy user interface that did not work well on a 480×240 screen, faulty synchronization software, and poor localization (despite the operating system being more advanced than its desktop cousins at the time with regards to Unicode support). It was at this time that the moniker “Wince” became popular to describe the OS.
Nevertheless, Microsoft forged on with Windows CE 2, released in 1997. This version fixed many of the problems of its predecessor, and added support for Ethernet networking and early attempts at wireless networking standards. It featured increased memory limits, 24-bit color, and TrueType font support. Despite getting much better reviews than version 1, at the time devices featuring the Windows CE OS were losing out badly to the simpler but vastly more popular Palm Pilot.
Windows CE made a brief and unusual appearance with the 1999 launch of Sega’s Dreamcast video game console. Each console shipped with a Windows CE sticker on the front, despite the fact that using the OS was optional for game developers, and most chose to avoid it to gain maximum game performance.
Windows CE 3 was released in April 2000 along with Microsoft’s Pocket PC hardware and featured a more simplified user interface designed to compete with the Palm Pilot. Version 4 continued this trend, and in 2003 a version entitled Windows Mobile was released for the Pocket PC. By this time, devices running the Palm OS were slipping in popularity, and the now-independent hardware arm of Palm (briefly known as palmOne) surprised the industry by announcing its first device, the Treo for Windows Smartphone, to ship with the Windows Mobile OS.
Windows CE and Windows Mobile have split into two separate development branches, with the latter usually following each new update from the former. Windows Mobile 5.0 followed on the heels of Windows CE 5, and Windows Mobile 6.0, codenamed Photon, is expected to arrive some time after Windows CE ships, most likely in the second half of 2007. Windows Mobile is a software platform built on top of Windows CE, with minor tweaks for specific Smartphone and Pocket PC hardware configurations.
New features of Windows CE 6 include a big leap in the maximum number of possible simultaneous processes from 32 to 32,000, an increase in the maximum memory available to each process from 64MB to 2GB, and the addition of the .NET 2.0 Compact Framework. Another important addition is a new version of the Networked Media Device Feature Pack (NMD FP), a free addition to the OS that adds digital video recording abilities.
Microsoft claims that despite the many changes in the kernel, the OS will not require significantly more resources to run. “The footprint of the kernel is pretty much the same as what it was before,” Mukund Ghangurde, Microsoft’s Group Product Manager for Windows Embedded, said in an interview. “The [Windows CE 5.0] kernel is about 300KB in size, and our development team assures us that [the Windows CE 6 kernel] is going to be pretty much in that same ballpark.”