A look into the history of mobile Microsoft

Microsoft & Mobile, Part 1: The Birth of Pen Windows




winpen6.2We’ve all heard the old saying before: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And you’d think that a company who has been trying to break into the mobile space for over 20 years now would learn from their past mistakes. But it seems that despite all of their innovation, Microsoft just doesn’t quite get how the mobile world works.

I’ve mentioned that Microsoft has been trying for over 20 years to break into the mobile market – accurately, they’ve been trying for 22 years; they first started in 1991 with the release of Windows for Pen Computing. A few years later came the birth of Windows CE and Pocket PC. Next came Windows XP, Tablet PC Edition and Windows Mobile, and then we get into “modern” history with things such as the Zune, KIN, Windows Phone and now Windows 8. I’ll tell you up front and right now that all of these products have been a flop. Some of them have been bigger successes than others, some of them eventually got merged into other products but in the end, all of the products we’ll talk about (save for Windows Phone and Windows 8) have been discontinued for one reason or another.

Let’s hop into the time machine and set the clock back to 1991. Article continues after the break.

1991: Windows for Pen Computing
Courtesy Winhistory.deWindows for Pen Computing was Microsoft’s first attempt at putting regular old desktop Windows on a tablet. At its heart, it was plain old Windows 3.1 with special tablet extensions pre-loaded. Now, back in these days the idea of capacitive multi-touch was unheard of. Instead, the only way to use a tablet PC was by using a stylus. The biggest addition Microsoft had was the handwriting recognition. You could do all sorts of stuff with it, including train the OS to recognize your specific handwriting. This was pretty innovative for its time and is something that still lives on in Windows today. Why did Windows for Pen Computing fail, then?

The answer has several parts to it. The first one is that the hardware simply wasn’t ready at that time. I once had a ThinkPad 360P which was a gigantic slab of laptop featuring a flip around screen that you could either use as a regular laptop or as a tablet PC, and we’re now seeing such ideas again with things like Lenovo’s Yoga ultrabook or Dell’s XPS 12 ultrabook. Unfortunately, I bought my ThinkPad 360P used and it didn’t have the special pen or the special pen drivers. The screen, however, still worked and it was terrible. That screen had colors that were so washed out it was almost like looking into a monochrome display. It also had bad issues with ghosting, making it almost impossible to play Doom.

The other answer is that Windows for Pen Computing was really nothing special. It was literally Windows 3.1 with some tablet-centric add-ons slapped on top of it. Because of that, Windows still retained its mouse-and-keyboard centric interface with elements that were far too small to hit with a pen. Then in 1995 came Windows 95, and version 2.0 of the pen extensions. While handwriting input was much improved, the extensions were hard to work with and Microsoft didn’t give developers all of the tools they had promised in this new version. As a result, developers either abandoned Windows for Pen Computing or only made a basic digitizer control panel. With that, the tablet PC died and wouldn’t be seen again until 2002 with the release of Windows XP, Tablet PC edition.

1997: Windows CE
pegasus-logoThe history of Windows CE actually goes back a few years. During the development of Windows 95, there was a thing called “WinPad” which would have been a handheld PDA that was based around x86 chips and a stripped down copy of Windows 3.1 only running the WinPad shell. If you install some old “Chicago” builds, there’s actually a small program called Microsoft WinPad which presumably was the same thing. It was ultimately scrapped because it was a 16-bit OS and 32-bit was the future, battery life tests were horrible and the estimated retail price of $750 was far too much for the average consumer.

After WinPad, another handheld project was tested and was called Pulsar. Pulsar was designed to be a “super pager” — a small wireless device with a small screen, no keyboard and very few physical buttons. It was aimed at people who had never used a traditional desktop computer. Ultimately, Microsoft Research killed the project saying that the world wasn’t ready for such a thing. Interestingly, in 2007, Pulsar finally saw the light, just not under Microsoft’s control.

1995 rolls around and with it comes the formation of yet another handheld project called Pegasus, and it became what we know now as Windows CE. The Pegasus project was made to cash in on the PDA and handheld PC market by offering a miniature version of Windows on an equally miniature PC. You had pocket Office and many other pocket apps all written in the same Win32 API that full desktop Windows had.

Sounds good, right? The things were released and were shaky to begin with, given the abysmal failure of the Apple Newton not too long ago. Microsoft began working on CE 1.0a which would have been a Japanese-localized version. Their mistake was that they neglected the Japanese market for so long that by the time CE 1.0a devices made it over there, the already shaky devices were completely ignored. To make matters worse, the version of Office that shipped on the devices was broken out of the box so that you couldn’t sync your Outlook calendar with your device. Another factor that hindered adoption was that Microsoft had no support for any email service other than Outlook. Needless to say, Windows CE 1.0 was a failure. Later versions of Windows CE improved things slightly, but it wasn’t until Windows Mobile that Microsoft finally gained dominance — for a time, anyway.

Next week: Setting the time machine for 2002 to take a look at Windows XP, Tablet PC Edition and Windows Mobile.


  • conradb212

    That’s a very good compilation of what happened back then. I lived through it all as Editor-in-Chief of Pen Computing Magazine. Few people today realize that tablets didn’t start with the iPad, or even with Microsoft’s Tablet PC initiative in 2002. And it actually began even before Windows for Pen Computing in 1991, which Microsoft only launched to fight of the emerging PenPoint operating platform that was totally pen-centric.

    Few remember that the Lenovo ThinkPad began as the IBM ThinkPad in the early 90s, and it was not a notebook, but a tablet. And a tablet that initially ran the novel PenPoint OS. Tablets were red-hot for a year or two in the early 90s, with every major computer company offering them. But as you pointed out, the technology just wasn’t quite there, and the emphasis on pens and handwriting recognition didn’t help matters. But do keep in mind that the original Wacom digitizer, the only with the active pen that does not need a battery, is still being used today, in virtually unchanged form.

    I think the Newton wasn’t nearly as bad as it’s being made out to be today. It was a groundbreaking piece of engineering and design, and while cartoonist Garry Trudeau did his darndest to mock and ridicule the Newton to death, handwriting recognition actually worked quite well, if you learned how to use it. The final models (MessagePad 2000/2100) were very good, and it’s too bad Jobs killed them off.

    Windows CE could have succeeded (after all, the little HP 100/200 clamshells had sold very well for years when CE arrived), but Microsoft was so very paranoid not to overlap with Windows proper that Windows CE was so crippled and limited as to be nearly useless. Even later versions were always held back so as not to compete with low-end notebooks.

    Anyway, loved reading your article. It certainly brought back memories.