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Going Mobile: How to Port Your Win32 Code to Windows CE

  • October 17, 2002
  • By Nancy Nicolaisen
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One winter day in 1986, while working in a federal research program in Alaska, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the latest issue of Dr. Dobbs, I learned of a technology that seemed to hold out the promise of solving a lot of problems for my colleagues. According to Dr Dobbs Editor Jon Erickson, Microsoft's Windows 1.0 was going to do great things for IBM PC users. "Hock the Volvo" he admonished, "and buy the Windows SDK right now!"

I took him at his word, and plunged ahead, though I was fortunate enough to hang on to the family station wagon. Inside six months I was totally immersed in Windows programming, and have been ever since. In the intervening years, I have written code for every version of Windows, written about writing Windows code for most of the serious programming journals (including Dr. Dobbs ), and published three books on Windows Programming. I can honestly say I never met a Windows I didn't like, and Windows CE is far and away my favorite so far. Here's why:

The Windows CE Opportunity

The Windows revolution of the early eighties did two things. First, it created a consistent, predictable, intuitive user interface. Over time this attracted a broad community of users, and by extension, created a public body of knowledge about how to use personal computers and software. Second, Windows interposed a layer of hardware abstraction that made peripheral devices independent of specific operating systems and thus dramatically stimulated the PC aftermarket. If you weren't active in personal computer programming before the advent of Windows, this may not mean much, but it was very important. It meant that a non-technical person could buy a computer, printer, and mouse, take them home, connect them -- and -- they worked. At the time, this was remarkable. The wealth and variety of cheap, interoperable peripherals we have today is a direct result of the maturation of the Windows "Plug and Play" concept.

Windows CE brings us to the brink of a similar revolution for handheld and palmtop computers. We are, so to speak, on the threshold of changes that are going to have as much or more impact on the way we live as did the personal computer revolution. Win CE has inherent technical momentum that none of the other handheld or palmtop competitors enjoy, because it leverages the huge base of Win 32 knowledge, skill and code. With a little savvy effort, Win 32 code moves quickly to Win CE. By porting existing code rather than starting from scratch, you'll incur less risk, deliver applications more quickly, and enjoy the reassuring prospect of a stable API in the future.

Finally, the best thing about Windows CE is that it's the perfect medium for individual creativity and innovation. Because Win CE applications must be small and lightweight, they lend themselves to the kind of projects a single person or a very small team can undertake. The devices themselves are fairly inexpensive, the SDK is an add-on to tools you probably already have and know well, and most likely at least some of your code will move across without any changes at all. In short, this time around, you can give it a try without hocking the Volvo.

Part I: Adapting Application Appearance to Windows CE

Every single thing we do in moving a Win 32 application's user interface to Windows CE is motivated by the fact that CE ( an acronym that stands for "Compact Edition") is small. It has an abbreviated API, is designed with low power devices in mind, has fierce memory and storage limitations, mandates tiny screens, assumes few to no peripheral devices, and offers relatively little in the way of second chances to errant code. In short, the job of porting Win 32 code to Windows CE could be summed up in the bumper sticker one sees so frequently:


In this first installment, I am focusing exclusively on the tasks that will get a user interface up and running for your application in the least time. In many cases this involves trimming back the lush, repetitive feature set we have come to expect on the desktop. This may go against the grain of your prior experience. What you have to remember is that the physical limitations of Windows CE are real. You can run out of memory, and you can run out of power. This one rule is the key to making a transition from the desktop user interface to a CE style interface: In any trade-off situation, we always choose the design solution that makes the application smaller.

Analyzing the User interface of Your Win32 Application

Our object in this lesson is to start with a Win32 application and get a visible Windows CE facsimile of it up and running as quickly as possible. Notice that I said visible facsimile. Here's what I mean by this. As a first step, we are going to isolate the parts of the Win 32 application that have to do with its user interface and include only those in our new Windows CE project. Right now we don't want to even consider the parts of the application that encode its specific behaviors and functionality.

We do this for several reasons. First, we divide the porting problem into the smallest, simplest elements possible, because this is the fastest path to stable code. If you fully port one aspect of an application at a time, test it, stabilize it and document it, then you'll consistently move forward, building on this incremental success. Second, a typical Win32 app, even a fairly lightweight one, will contain tens if not hundreds of unsupported function calls, library references, and other baggage that would take too long to successfully prune away if we started with all of it. Third, and most important of all, as you move the user interface of your porting subject to the highly constrained Win CE environment, you will undoubtedly shed a great deal of the desktop application's feature set. Shedding features isn't bad. It's good, and its necessary. When you have the user interface finalized on the CE side, you will be in a much better position to decide what functionality it makes sense to port. Our objective here is a ported app that reflects the spirit of the Win CE environment and its Win32 origins: it should be a small, lightweight, intelligently distilled essence of the Win 32 app from which it evolved.

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