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Firefox for Windows starts 64-bit transition

Programmers have begun releasing early versions of 64-bit Firefox. It's scheduled to be mature later this year.

Mainstream microprocessors have been 64-bit for years. Operating systems have followed suit. Now it's time for a program used by hundreds of millions of people to make the leap: Firefox.

Programmer Armen Zambrano Gasparnian announced the first 64-bit Firefox builds for Windows on Friday, offering an FTP site for those who want to download it. But the software isn't for mainstream users yet.

For one thing, there's no installer included yet, though that work is under way, too. For another, the software is still one of the very raw "nightly" builds for developers.

Support for 64-bit processors is one of the planned Firefox 4 features. Mozilla hopes to release Firefox 4 by the end of November.

The transition to 64-bit computing often offers a modest computing performance boost, but the main reason for the transition is getting around the 4GB memory limit of 32-bit computing. Since relatively few applications today require that much memory--or even whatever fraction remains after the operating system and other applications claim their share--the 64-bit change for desktop computing has taken years.

Apple's Safari, however, already made the 64-bit jump with Mac OS X 10.6, released in 2009. Internet Explorer on 64-bit Windows is offered in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Google is working on 64-bit Chrome, too, though it appears the Windows version is a lower priority than 64-bit Mac OS X and Linux versions.

One of the hurdles in moving to 64-bit versions is plug-in compatibility, notably Adobe Systems' Flash, which is available in 64-bit form only in an Adobe Labs version for Linux at present. And even though 64-bit processors now are common on PCs, 32-bit chips are often found in new high-end smartphones.