Gates' 64-Bit Pitch

The performance benefits of 64-bit Windows are compelling, but companies must decide whether they're ready to take the plunge
Reuters America Inc., which uses Windows servers widely in its tech infrastructure, has been evaluating 64-bit Windows for about a year. "We think 64-bit is coming and will dominate the industry in due time," says Bill Evjen, a technical director of development with Reuters' platforms group, via E-mail. In addition to assessing 64-bit Windows for internal operations, Reuters is studying its potential for application servers at customer locations that support the company's information services. "We're sure we are going to have customers requesting our offerings in the 64-bit flavor," he says.

Desktop upgrades to Windows x64 probably won't be as widespread as in the server market. "There are a small percentage of people constrained by PC-processor speed," says Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions On Microsoft. "I'm not going to just drop everything in my Dell machine right now to run out and buy a new machine." Gates agrees, estimating that today fewer than 10% of PCs are candidates for Windows XP x64.

Power users may want the boost. "I have a small group of [CAD] workstations that I want to replace. I need to bump them up," says Steve Wierenga, VP of IT with Ajacs Die Sales Corp., a small distributor of industrial supplies. Wierenga plans to test Windows XP x64 as a potential option.

Longhorn, not Windows XP x64, will be the upgrade path for most Windows PCs. "The big numbers on the desktop will come with Longhorn," Gates says.

The Longhorn client will be based on the same underlying code used for Windows XP x64 but will come with a broad range of new features for users. For example, Longhorn's interface will give users new kinds of information--including a peek at the content inside folders--as they guide a cursor across their PC screens. "When you move to 64-bit [Windows XP], you don't see any change at all. There isn't a pixel that's different," Gates says. "Longhorn is a feature release to make all end-user tasks dramatically simpler than they are today."

Like its customers, Microsoft will find itself in both the 32-bit and 64-bit camps for the foreseeable future. The company is developing 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Longhorn, and when it issues an early snapshot of Longhorn code to hardware engineers this week, it will make both available. It's likely the Longhorn client and the Longhorn server will ship in both forms when they become generally available. The client is due in the second half of next year and the server in the first half of 2007.

So, how long will Microsoft continue to develop 32-bit operating systems now that 64-bit Windows is here? "I don't know. I really don't know," says Allchin, who oversees all Windows development. "I don't think we have finally decided yet." Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 database, due later this year, also will ship in 32-bit and 64-bit options.

For IT departments, the move to 64-bit Windows will be simple, Microsoft officials promise. "Thirty-two-bit applications run without change, so it's an easy transition," Allchin says. The systems-management tools already in place at most companies will manage mixed environments of 32-bit and 64-bit Windows systems and applications, company officials add.

But planning and testing are needed, and everything won't necessarily work. Windows XP x64 won't support DOS, 16-bit, or Posix applications, or some older networking protocols. Jeff Price, senior director of Windows server product management, says IT departments will want to check existing applications for compatibility, performance, and reliability on Windows x64 before deploying new 64-bit servers. Microsoft already knows that certain applications--those with 32-bit, kernel-mode components such as device drivers--will need to be tweaked to run on Windows x64.

That gets to one of Gates' goals at WinHEC--inspire the industry to take on the work that remains to be done. Gates will urge the audience of hardware engineers to develop the device drivers needed to make sure that a variety of computer peripherals can plug and play with Windows x64. "You can mix 32-bit applications and 64-bit applications, but you need 64-bit device drivers," he says. "During the next 12 months, there will be a lot of focus on that."

Application software needs to be developed, too. More than 400 server applications are being readied for Windows x64, including Citrix Systems' MetaFrame, IBM's DB2, Oracle's 10g database and E-Business Suite, and SAP's R/3 and mySAP. Microsoft's own road map calls for 64-bit versions of SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005, Services For Unix, BizTalk Server 2006, and Host Integration Server 2005 this year. The goal is to create 64-bit editions of most of the company's major server applications as they go through their normal release cycle.

Still, it could be several years before Microsoft and its partners get all that 64-bit development work done. "There will be some time, like five or six years from now, where a lot of application updates will start to be 64-bit only," Gates says. "But that's quite some time off."

Gates brings a long-term perspective to these things. It was nearly 20 years ago that Microsoft released Windows 1.0, the 16-bit operating system that started it all. "Windows 1.0 wasn't exactly a barn burner," he says with a laugh. Years later, Microsoft rebuilt Windows in the form of 32-bit Windows NT. "Now," says the software architect, "we're starting some of those same things."

Photo by Christian Lambiotte/AFP/Getty Images