Your IPhone Can’t Do What This WinCE Device Can!

Most of us probably now have a smartphone, an extremely capable pocket computer — even if sometimes its abilities are disguised a little by its manufacturer. There are many contenders to the crown of first smartphone, but in that discussion it’s often forgotten that the first generally available such devices weren’t phones at all, but PDAs, or Personal Digital Assistants. The fancier ones blurred the line between PDA and laptop and were the forerunner devices to netbooks, and it’s one of these that [Remy] is putting through its paces. He makes the bold claim that it can do things the iPhone can’t, and while the two devices are in no way comparable he’s right on one point. His HP Journada 720 can host a development environment, while the iPhone can’t.

The HP was something of a turn-of-the-millennium object of desire, being a palmtop computer with a half-decent keyboard a 640×240 pixel TFT display, and 32 MB of RAM alongside its 206 MHz Intel StrongARM CPU. Its Windows CE OS wasn’t quite the desktop Windows of the day, but it was close enough to be appealing for the ’90s exec who had everything. Astoundingly it has more than one Linux distro that can run on it with some level of modernity, which is where he’s able to make the claim about the iPhone being inferior.

We remember the Journada clamshell series from back in the day, though by our recollection the battery life would plummet if any attempt was made to use the PCMCIA slot. It was only one of several similar platforms offering a mini-laptop experience, and we feel it’s sad that there are so few similar machines today. Perhaps we’ll keep an eye out for one and relive the ’90s ourselves.

44 thoughts on “Your IPhone Can’t Do What This WinCE Device Can!

    1. You can install Linux on the device and develop with the usual compilers and languages.
      The point isn’t speed or hardware capabilities, smartphones would of course win hands down, but being open, a context in which both iPhone and Androids have an abysmal record.

        1. Rooted =/= Open. Open source hardware is virtually nonexistent, with the various Pine64 devices and MNT Reform being the closest (shout out to [Bunnie]’s open source laptop being the OG to the MNT Reform).

      1. Windows definitely isn’t open source and I doubt you will find many open hardware WinCE devices. The amount of work I had to go through just to get my old HP Pocket PC (which ran Windows CE) to even accept the correct Bluetooth profile to support a Bluetooth headset was a huge pain because of how locked down the device was. Once I accomplished it, I was able to use an open WiFi connection to make a voice call using the device. This was probably 15 years ago, so I don’t remember exactly which service I used to make the call.

        Android itself is open source; the bloatware crap companies like Samsung put on top of it may or may not be. And as Android is based upon the Linux kernel, you can install a lot of those same compilers and languages and develop on Android. You can even do it without rooting the device in some cases. I played around with developing Android applications on an Android device around a decade ago, and software to do development has just gotten better and easier to install since then. So, I wouldn’t say Android has an abysmal record with being open. Samsung, who basically wants to be Apple, may have that abysmal record, but Android itself does not.

        1. I’m sure that folks got some use out of them, but non-x86 Windows just always failed to really take off due to the very limited software offerings. Which may be the biggest reason that people still use Windows at all…

          1. It wasn’t that bad in the early days, though.
            Circa. 1998 to 2004 or so.

            Back then, when Windows CE 2 and 3 were around. And MIPS, SH3 processors (in addition to ARM).

            Pocket PC 2000 (for PDAs) was strongly based on WinCE 3.0, still.
            It consisted of a framework that extended plain Windows CE for palmtop use.

            Around the turn of the millennium, many software developers had programmed mobile versions of their existing Windows 9x programs for Windows CE.
            Others wrote new programs for Palm OS, too.

            Back then, I had been using astronomy programs and emulators on my Windows CE PDAs (HP Jornada 545, Casio Cassiopeia E-125?). I also used a few Palm OS devices (M100, Handspring Visor)..

            For Windows CE, there also was an alternative to DirectX, called “GAPI” (Game API).

            Japanese developers really did spend a lot of work into making good PDA applications, I think.
            There’s a Win CE port of Neko Project II, for example.

            Some Win CE applications also ran on both Handheld PCs and Pocket PCs.

            Windows Mobile 5 and especially, Mobile 6 did introduce drastic changes, harming compatibility.

            The late sub netbooks of the late 2000s running Windows CE 5 and higher aren’t exactly a good user experience, I think. They contain a very cripp.., err, bare bone installation of Windows CE, along with old software.

            Please everyone don’t think of this being the typical Windows CE experience. Windows CE 2 and 3 of the turn of the millennium really worked and shipped with usable productivity software.

          2. Personally, I think that Windows CE and it’s extensions Pocket PC 2000/2002, Handheld PC 2000 didn’t get nearly as much attention as they should.

            Many interesting programs were being made by hobbyists who distributed them via their private homepages back in the day.

            Unfortunately, these homepages are long gone or had been replaced with any references of their Windows CE (or Palm OS) applications.

            Sure, the Wayback machine is a way to still visit them. But since web rings are gone, it’s hard to know were to look at.

            The most effective way of rediscovering the Windows CE application library is by looking for old Windows CE or Pocket PC CDs.

            There were shareware/freeware compilations. PC magazines had them sometimes on CD, but there were also little box releases sold in stores with titles like “1000 programs for your PDA” etc.

            Another way is to look for old PDA or Pocket PC websites.
            They’re mostly defunct now, but Wayback Machine has a few snapshots, maybe.

            PS: Symbian had a similar fate. It once was overly popular, like Palm OS was, now it’s basically forgotten. Does Android go the way of the Dodo, too, eventually?

          3. Even back then, there were a lot more games available for desktop Linux than there were for Windows CE. And that pretty much sums up why it failed in the consumer space. The only reason why x86 Windows (unlike Windows on all other architectures) is still popular is momentum, although Microsoft is testing their luck trying to find out how much they can degrade it before users complain too much…

          4. >non-x86 Windows just always failed to really take off due to the very limited software offerings

            I think that was mainly because of the small market and high prices at the time. There weren’t a whole many users so there weren’t all that many people making and porting software. When the whole mobile app ecosystem really took off, it was with Apple, Android, and cheap smartphones – not pocket computers like it was envisioned.

            The strong point of Windows CE was that an individual developer could just offer you the executable binary file to download, and it would just work like that. No compiling it yourself, no package managers and repositories, no central ecosystems, walled gardens and middle-men politics to deal with. However, that also meant that software wasn’t as easy to find.

          5. >The only reason why x86 Windows (unlike Windows on all other architectures) is still popular is momentum

            And the reasons I listed above: Windows doesn’t try to “own” your software.

        1. Plus the whole bit where an “app” is just a file in some folder that you can place anywhere – thanks to the Portable Executable format. You didn’t necessarily need to “install” an app at all. You just have it. Swap memory cards with different programs in them, and you have different software ready to go.

          It didn’t need to pull in a whole bunch of dependencies from a central repository, or “assimilate” the software into a part of the system like how Linux does. It was a pared down desktop Windows for all intents and purposes – no “package management” necessary.

  1. Other PDAs, like Palm or Psion devices had energy efficiency and battery life better than any of todays laptops or smartphones and still managed to run smoothly. Using text editor or any other software where most of use time is waiting for event should be possible with minimal power usage.

    1. If people today could put up with black and white non-backlit screens and zero wireless capability, we could have devices like that today. In fact we do, e-paper based ebook readers can last for weeks of regular usage with their wireless radios disabled. For better or worse, our high expectations regarding screens and always on connectivity have destroyed the market for weeks-of-battery devices.

  2. HaD has had some confusing headlines recently due to their capitalisation. What the hell is a WINCE DEVICE? Oh yes I’ll have to click to find out, how convenient… it could have been WIN-CE or WinCE or Windows CE or….

  3. I bought a Jornada 720 to use as an ultra-portable device instead of a bulky laptop the year it came out. It worked perfectly and I didn’t need to buy and lug a laptop again for travel for over a decade.

    The proper EIA-232D serial port and Microsoft Office Suite in ROM made it perfect for my engineering on the road. When the ARM version of Outlook was no longer usable I switched to using nPOP for ARM and it just kept going. The inclusion of an ARM version in the Microsoft Streets & Trips desktop software was also very handy to have on the road.

    The three swappable battery packs I had, including an oversized double capacity one, gave me about 12 hours runtime for my field tests before I had to find AC power again.

    BTW – your memory is basically correct, most PCMCIA devices like my 10baseT ethernet, Orinoco Gold WiFi, and IBM 340 Meg MicroDrive would drain the batteries fast. The one exception was the CF card adaptor that I used for backing up and offloading collected data.

    A big reason this worked so well for so long for me was the Microsoft provided Desktop Visual C++ and Visual Basic compilers/IDEs. This allowed me to write software on my Win2000 workstation for use with the J720 on the lab bench and in the field. The free compilers also briefly spurred a good range of 3rd party utilities and fun games for the Jornada series.

  4. So what about us hackers could develop a modern equivalent to the Jornada ?
    Modern interfaces, integrated wifi, better batteries, a slightly better screen, a similar keyboard, a sturdy shell, no fluff or fuss and a good Linux distro. I’d love it ! It could even reuse some Raspberry Pi guts to save on dev.

    1. I’ve had a GPD MicroPC since 2021 and am pretty happy with it. If you don’t need the “gamer” stuff it’s cheaper that the DragonBox Pyra (which is awesome too!) The MicroPC has real ethernet and serial ports, decent battery life and fits in a (big) pocket:

      Linux Mint installed on it without any hassles.

  5. the HP clamshells were great. i had an hp95lx in the day, and now i happen to have an omnibook 430 which looks exactly the same but scaled up 2x in every dimension.

    hosting a development environment really takes me back. it was so long ago, i can’t even remember if it was one of my last PDAs or one of my first smartphones. but i remember i once went through the path-less-travelled to get self-hosted gcc onto my device. i was successful, and i guess it was amazing. i had dreamed of that day for 20 years!

    but i wouldn’t even bother today. my android phone has ssh on it. why self-host when every device is a competent thin client? i do more programming on my phone these days than i did on the phone i put so much effort to put a development environment on.

    even my supercomputer x86 laptop, i installed gcc because it’s so easy “apt install gcc”, but i hardly use it. i always just ssh into my ‘server’ and develop on that instead.

  6. I really wish there was an alternative to this with this form factor without having to deal with the whole “also it’s a phone!” nonsense.

    I have one of these devices and it’s lovely to use in w/linux; albeit severely underpowered for most tasks nowadays.

  7. Philips Nino with WinCE was pretty useful as a PC/Network Tech in the mid to late 90’s. Serial adapter to console into things, keep spreadsheets of wiring closets and other thing with you, use the charging/docking cradle to connect to that shiny new IP network, or use the moden to dial-in to the central office to access email and stuff from the remote office you were dispatched to. The memory cards weren’t cheap and the network adapter was not within a college budget but was way more useful than the pocket schedulers that preceded them.

    The Psion devices someone else mentioned were even more versatile. A boss of mine had adapters for his that even supported 5250 communication to IBM AS400 systems via the token ring network at our manufacturing plant. They could do more than the early CE devices and were priced accordingly.

  8. I had one of the SH-3 CPU Powered Jornadas as well as StrongARM iPaqs and MIPS Aeros. My last Windows mobile was a great slide-out keyoard device from HTC. I recall “on device” development using a great “no code” database tool called Visual CE and a Forth called CEForth. Outlook, Office etc. ran closely enough on the Windows mobile devices for useful companionship with their Windows Desktop partners. For “umbilical” development Embedded Visual Basic was decent. OEMs like Bsquare and Graymatter gave Windows CE some embedded gravitas. Sun, Oracle, and Sybase offered mobile variants of their enterprise tools. On the minus side it seemed app selection remained limited (no central app store) though I recall a few cool browsers like Opera and Thunderhawk. And ActiveSync never seemed to actively synch.

  9. I loved my Sharp Zaurus (Collie). So much so actually, I still have it, it has survived several purges of sentimental old hardware when I have needed space.

    So many programs normally meant for Desktops were ported to it. With WiFi it was almost like a Smartphone of today. It was Linux, it ran open source software, but…

    Try as I might I just couldn’t get a development environment to run on the thing. Nothing beyond a basic gcc/helloworld.c. Nor could I get the cross compiling environment up and running, there were just way too many moving pieces that had to align for that to work.

    Now my cellphone, arguably more locked down, less open than a Zaurus has no problem compiling it’s own software or even software for other platforms using full featured development environments that are a simple, clickable install from the Play store.

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