64-bit PCs: Drivers wanted

A lack of software is holding back 64-bit PCs, but Apple and Microsoft are pushing ahead.

Now that they're 64 (bits, that is), personal computers are still searching for developers to need them and feed them.

In 2003, Advanced Micro Devices released 64-bit chips for PCs in the form of the Athlon 64, and Intel followed suit in 2005. But the software needed to take advantage of those chips is harder to find than a Beatles song on iTunes.

Several issues have contributed to the problem, but as seen in , device drivers always seem to be front and center. Drivers are a vexing piece of the PC puzzle. They're small bits of software needed to make sure devices like printers, DVD drives and graphics cards connect properly to PCs and Macs, and they can cause major problems if something goes wrong.

Microsoft is requiring those device manufacturers to develop 64-bit drivers if they want their devices to work with the 64-bit edition of Windows Vista, in an effort to ensure that device drivers are written to proper standards. But hardware vendors and application developers haven't wanted to take the time and effort to develop new software for an operating system that very few people use. As a result, 64-bit Windows software is hard to find, although Microsoft says the situation is improving.

Apple, however, thinks it has found a quicker and easier road to bring its mainstream users into the 64-bit era. When Mac OS X Leopard comes around later this year, hardware makers will be able to use the 32-bit drivers they've already developed and qualified along with 64-bit applications built for Leopard.

"It's a nice migration path, and it recognizes the reality that the benefits of 64-bit (drivers) are somewhat limited," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research.

In its simplest sense, 64-bit hardware allows a system to take advantage of more than 4GB of memory, the theoretical addressing limit of 32-bit systems. There are other performance advantages, but that's the main one.

But at present, putting more than 4GB of memory into a PC is a very expensive proposition. While that's starting to change, even today it's still pretty unusual for a PC to ship with more than 2GBs of memory.

Almost 90 percent of notebooks, and 73 percent of desktops, are bought by U.S. retail customers with either 1GB or 2GB of memory, according to CurrentAnalysisWest. Just over 15 percent of desktops come with 3GB, but desktops and notebooks with 4GB barely register on the needle.

Some gamers and scientific-computing professionals are already starting to push up against that limit, McCarron said. And as DRAM prices decline, 4GB of memory will become more common as a default option, he said.

So the hardware needed for a 64-bit world is getting close. The software, however, remains rare.

Microsoft released a 64-bit edition of Windows XP in 2005, but few people use it. Apple's Tiger operating system is able to address more than 4GBs of memory when run on 64-bit chips, but it's not a full 64-bit operating system the way Leopard will be.

And although Windows Vista is available in 64-bit versions, retail PCs are mostly sold with the 32-bit version of the operating system. Vista Ultimate comes with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions if you buy the boxed copy, but any other edition of Vista requires you to order the extra DVD from Microsoft an additional fee if you want the 64-bit version.

It's hard to estimate how many 64-bit users there are, Microsoft says, but it acknowledges that most mainstream PC users, and even many enthusiasts, have little reason to go 64-bit, for now. Even the next version of Windows, scheduled for the end of the decade, will arrive in both 64-bit and 32-bit editions, suggesting that Microsoft isn't prepared to fully commit to a 64-bit world this decade.

But in October, Apple plans to ship only one version of Leopard that can run both 64-bit and 32-bit applications. Apple thinks this will entice Mac OS developers to create 64-bit applications because every Mac shipping after October--and Core 2 Duo systems that upgrade to Leopard--will be able to run 64-bit applications, said Brian Croll, director of the company's OS X product marketing.

"If I'm an application developer, I can be assured that all those Leopard systems will be able to run my applications," Croll said.

Tiger, the current version of Mac OS X, has some 64-bit features that allow Macs to address more than 4GB of memory and take advantage of the Unix underpinnings of the operating system to run some 64-bit applications. But it doesn't allow Mac developers to create 64-bit applications using Cocoa, Apple's programming interface. That is what will arrive with Leopard.

And the driver requirements for Leopard are much looser. Hardware vendors can create 64-bit Mac OS drivers once there's sufficient demand, since they know their 32-bit drivers will work just fine with the 64-bit applications on Leopard, Croll said.

Some applications require the extra performance delivered by 64-bit drivers, but most don't, at least not right away, McCarron said. "The sacrifice that's being made here is fairly small, and affects a small set of users."

However, Barry Goffe, a director in the Windows group, says things are easier for Apple. Microsoft feels that in order to bring 64 bits to the world while ensuring interoperability with the vast amount of devices and software available for Windows, it has to specify a standard driver development model.

"The variety and diversity of devices and the quantity of developers that Windows supports is probably several orders of magnitude greater than the limited number of developers that Apple supports," Goffe said. "The problem they are trying to solve is a much smaller problem."

McCarron said one advantage of Microsoft's approach to driver development is that it will force the development of cleaner device drivers. "Because it's one of the few pieces of third-party software that shows up in the protected area of the OS, drivers can really screw things up," he said.

The 64-bit driver situation is improving for Vista systems. Thanks to years of work--and the delay in consumer adoption--64-bit driver coverage is actually pretty high considering there are few actual users of the 64-bit operating systems, according to Microsoft.

"The issue with drivers is already less of a gating factor," Goffe said, noting that Microsoft required that for its premium "Certified for Windows Vista" logo, companies have a 64-bit driver.

"The real issue that's in front of us around broad usage of 64-bit comes back to the applications," he said. "It's a little bit of a chicken and egg kind of thing. There aren't a lot of mainstream 64-bit capable apps yet."

Microsoft expects the transition to take more time, said Michael Sievert, the corporate vice president in charge of product marketing for Windows.

"Usually something comes along that is a catalyzing force," Sievert said. "Each time we've made one of these migrations it's been something that takes time."

Apple agrees that this transition won't happen overnight. It will first emphasize 64-bit applications for its base of users in the graphic design world, who buy systems such as the Mac Pro workstation to run applications with large data sets, Croll said. That system can already be configured with up to 16GB of memory, and will probably serve as Apple's test bed for 64-bit applications.

As for the mainstream users, "the 64-bit pieces of the puzzle are going to be in place a couple of years from now," McCarron said. "The burden will be on the OS side, and the applications will follow."

Close
Drag