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Is Microsoft Giving up on Windows CE?

If So, There's a Huge Opportunity for Linux

  • December 13, 1999
  • By David Haskin

Strong signs emerged last week that Microsoft has done an about-face and will no longer rely on Windows CE for success in the Post-PC era. Instead, it seems to have found a new savior: broadband.

That became clear following three major announcements. Microsoft's announced an alliance with Ericsson to develop smart phone applications. It also announced the impending release of its Microsoft Mobile Explorer (MME) platform for smart phones and said General Instrument (GI), the huge set-top vendor, will use Microsoft's streaming media technology in high-end set-top boxes.

Not one of those announcements was about Windows CE. All three were about broadband Net devices and point to a serious competitive repositioning by Microsoft in the Net device space.

Take one thing as a given: within several years, virtually all Net devices will be broadband. That move has already started in earnest in the set-top area, where GI is a major player.

In the wireless world, Ericsson has staked its future on broadband. It and other major wireless broadband players, specifically Motorola and Nokia, never have taken Windows CE seriously, according to our sources. The alliance with Ericsson is an obvious attempt to become a major force in the emerging broadband smart phone game without relying on the woebegone Windows CE.

Another major bit of evidence that Microsoft is lessening its reliance on Windows CE is that MME is OS-agnostic. Remember, MME is an entire platform, only one part of which is a microbrowser. Even six months ago, the idea of Microsoft sharing technology with other operating systems would have been unthinkable. Now, it seems inevitable. [Editor's note: This opens up a huge opportunity for Linux to serve as the OS under the hood.]

Yet another bit of evidence that Microsoft is giving up on Windows CE is its recent announcement that it will no longer use the "Windows CE" name. Instead, devices that use the OS will be labeled, "Powered by Windows." You learn in Marketing 101 that you don't stop using a brand name unless the product has failed.

Besides lessening its reliance on Windows CE, the announcements last week indicate that Microsoft is changing its competitors. Making MME OS-agnostic initially feels like a concession to Palm. However, it does put Symbian and its EPOC platform in peril.

A consortium of four major companies owns Symbian, including Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola. Nokia recently announced it would use the Palm OS for a future smart phone. Now, Microsoft is getting cozy with Ericsson, although the Swedish wireless company noted that the alliance has nothing to do with Windows CE. Still, given Symbian's ownership, the assumption that EPOC will be the de facto standard for smart phones is now in serious doubt.

The Microsoft/General Instrument announcement also has a potential impact on Symbian since Motorola, another Symbian partner, is acquiring GI. The GI announcement also gives Microsoft a major ally in its battle with streaming media giant RealNetworks.

Some painted the Ericsson announcement as the start of a browser war with Phone.com, but we believe that's simplistic media talk. True, Phone.com has an OS-agnostic microbrowser. However, as demonstrated in Microsoft's jihad against Netscape, browsers are stalking horses in the competition over bigger infrastructure software products. And beyond the microbrowsers, Phone.com doesn't compete directly with Microsoft--yet.

Microsoft has demoted Windows CE to just another soldier in its war for relevance in the Post-PC world. Instead, it will focus more on other building blocks for broadband Net devices.

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