8 min read

Bill Gates Discusses 64-Bit Windows, Longhorn Transition

Microsoft chairman calls 64-bit memory a 'huge' boost for demanding PC and server applications, but says most business desktop users can probably wait for Longhorn before upgrading.
InformationWeek: There's been some commentary that Longhorn isn't going to be the big change once envisioned. How do you respond to that?

Gates: Well, Longhorn's going to be a very big change. Every time we do an operating system, we consider doing more than we end up doing. But all the big things in terms of performance, user interface, search integration -- those things are happening. The timing of Longhorn in terms of what people want for management, in terms of simplified user interface, Longhorn timing is super good. There's a lot of end-user things that have built up since we released Windows XP. It's been some time since we released XP, so the interest in having new and interesting things is very high. We've bunched these things up. So, where XP was sort of the completion of getting the [Windows] NT technology to be super mainstream, there was a lot of work in XP that was under the covers, not so much end-user features. You really have to go back to Windows 95 to look at a release that had as much in terms of, 'Wow, there's this new way I can find things, there's this new way I can manage a set of desktops.' There's no shortage of capabilities in Longhorn. We've got WinHEC, which is very focused on the 64-bit, but we'll talk about the hardware-related features of Longhorn and give people an update there. We have the PDC in the fall, and then during '06, we'll be doing a lot of betas and getting very close to the final release and everybody will have will have a very clear sense of what's in Longhorn as you get through '06.

InformationWeek: You obviously work on a lot of things at Microsoft. To what extent do you continue to be involved in this operating system work, especially x64 and Longhorn?

Gates: Longhorn, there's a lot of decisions about features and things like that, and I'm very involved in that. Longhorn's the product I spend the most time on, more than even Office or Search, which are great things, Longhorn's the biggest thing, probably because everything else builds on top of Longhorn and assumes getting Longhorn right is the most important thing going on here. 64-bit, once we decided to do it, I was involved in some discussions with Intel and AMD, encouraging them to bring the chips along and make sure it matched what we're doing in the software, but the specification for 64-bit is pretty straightforward, so we didn't have to go to a lot of meetings to discuss trade-offs, choices, things like that. I'd get mail from the team saying some of the code they were getting from another group, you know, that group wasn't prioritizing the 64-bit work highly enough, so I'd get involved in that. The amount of time I've had to spend on 64-bit is quite small compared with Longhorn because it's just got a very pure definition -- everything in Windows works 64-bit. It's a huge effort.

This other thing that the team highlights very much is they took the 64-bit release and, some of the way they do the engineering practices and making sure the thing is very locked down for security, they put a lot of energy into that. So it's not like they just did the 64-bit release, it's also the foundation, and maybe this is more an internal thing than an external thing, but a ton of stuff that they did in that 64-bit release is what lays the great foundation for Longhorn, because they did all that security stuff that we knew we had to do for Longhorn, they just went ahead and did it in the 64-bit release. In fact, if we hadn't done all that, we could probably have had this thing out four to six months earlier, but the timing's actually perfect in terms of when the chips are coming out. And everybody who cares has had versions of the 64-bit going back more than six months. That's why MSN Search is running today using 64-bit bit, and we have a bunch of customers using it. The timing between us and the chip guys is really about perfect.

InformationWeek: Windows is about 20 years old, and clearly you're spending a lot of time on Longhorn. What else are you spending time on?

Gates: Let's see, Windows 1.0 is, what, 1986? I think that's right. We did the announcement of Windows more than 20 years ago, but we didn't ship it. And Windows 1.0 wasn't exactly a barn burner. It had, like, four applications that ran with it. We totally rebuilt Windows with the NT technology about 10 to 12 years into the Windows history, we really rebuilt what was underneath, and now we're starting some of those same things. Some of this virtualization technology lets us have ways of doing compatibility with all the Windows applications, it's obviously a big asset, but also having in the system, taking all the Web services work we've done and building that down really into the heart of the operating system to have something that's very focused on this new generation of applications, so you can really get the best of both worlds. That's why we've been pushing this virtualization hardware both for server loads and client loads, and over the next three of four years, virtualization is a very big thing. It gives up the opportunity to do the new operating system design where the compatibility is pretty straightforward.

So we actually have three things that are new operating system-type things. One in research, one in an avant-garde product group, one in the Windows group itself, looking at different ideas, and we're really coalescing those. So we're going to call this thing, we could have changed the name of Windows when we went with the NT technology, not a line of code survived by the time we all through with it, it was all completely new, it just happened to run those same applications; they even ran DOS applications. That's a case where we did change the name. We could still be calling this thing DOS, but once we got the GUI and it looked so different, we changed the name. As we go to this next one, we don't really have a time frame, over the next five to 10 years, it will probably keep the same name because the value of running those applications is there, and we have been bringing in support for these new service-oriented applications with things like the Indigo runtime. There's never one day where, boom, overnight things are different, the newer applications will just run better. So we are renewing the technology. There are a lot of ways that systems are very different than they were 10 years ago when NT was such a timely, important transition for us. A lot of people questioned, would we get through that? Could Windows be both a broad high-volume system and have all the power that people, back then, associated only with Unix? We achieved that.

InformationWeek: How long will Microsoft continue to develop 32-bit software? And how long will it continue to be around running in customer environments?

Gates: It will be around for ... infinite. There are DOS applications running today on top of these systems, so we're not going to have a version of the operating system that doesn't run DOS applications and doesn't run 32-bit Windows applications. Part of the Windows proposition is compatibility. Fifty years from now, somebody may say, now's the time, but not in my lifetime is that likely to change. In terms of how much, when you do new features, will you always do 32-bit things? For the foreseeable future, but we'll sit and talk to customers. Take the extreme case for us, SQL server. Is it possible that five years from now all of our SQL customers would say, we just want 64-bit? It's possible. But it's in that kind of time frame for the applications that are very 64-bit oriented. Remember, we're very high volume, so Microsoft needs to serve a higher variety of customers than anybody else. We ship things in the hundreds of millions, so we need to keep 32-bit around a long time. For some ISVs, they may have a quicker transition where they tell people, hey, let's get over to 64-bit. I bet if I talked to the ISV group, there's some of those very high-end ISVs that are looking over the next several years, for their new features. They'll keep supporting their old software, but for the really new stuff, they'll say to their customers, get on 64-bit machines. So it's not imminent for anything but very high-end software.

Photo of Bill Gates by Christian Lambiotte/AFP/Getty Images