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Gates calls for 64-bit software support

Microsoft's Bill Gates sees widespread use of powerful 64-bit chips in the near future--but not if hardware makers don't get to work on the drivers that will bring that power to the desktop.

SEATTLE--The shift to 64-bit computing on the desktop is nearly here, or so says Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

By the end of next year, virtually all of Advanced Micro Devices' processors will be 64-bit chips, and most Intel chips shipped at that time will be 64-bit capable, Gates said.

"This is going to be a really wonderful transition," Gates promised during an hour-long talk at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) here. Gates used a good part of a speech to hardware makers Tuesday to try to convince them that the time is now to start writing 64-bit drivers for their software.

The issue is very important to the software maker. Even if most PC users are still a couple years away from running 64-bit operating systems on their desktop, Microsoft needs hardware makers to start moving now, says independent technology analyst Peter Glaskowsky.

Applications written to take advantage of 64-bit computing won't work in Windows unless the drivers are also 64-bit, Glaskowsky said, adding that a lack of drivers could well be a "gating factor" that keeps people from moving to 64 bit programs.

Hence the urgency of Microsoft's call. "They are telling them 'Please, you must start doing this now,'" Glaskowsky said. Among the advantages of 64-bit software is the ability to gracefully accommodate more physical memory than the 4GB limit in 32-bit systems.

A Microsoft executive noted that two or three years ago people thought 64-bit computing on the desktop was anywhere from 5 to 10 years away from reality.

"We think this has the potential to become mainstream 12 months out," said Microsoft corporate VP Tom Button, adding that 64-bit systems could be the predominant PC architecture within two to three years.

Button also urged PC makers to seize on 64-bit machines as a way to reenergize the PC enthusiast market and, in the process, create a bigger market for premium PCs. "There's really opportunities for companies to be the early leader," Button said during a panel on Windows Business Priorities and Opportunities.

Despite Microsoft's enthusiasm, the timing of the transition to 64-bit has been widely debated. AMD and some game developers have said it will begin to occur in late 2004 and 2005. Ubisoft and have already re-engineered their games to work on 64-bit systems and AMD executives have said application retrofitting is actually fairly easy.

French Linux vendor Mandrakesoft on Tuesday released Mandrakelinux 10.0 for AMD-64 bit chips. Using the operating system in 64-bit mode improves performance by 20 percent on average, according to the company. It costs $129.90.

Intel has maintained that it will probably start to promote 64-bits on the desktop around the time Longhorn comes out. That next version of the Windows operating system is due in 2006.

Besides software, memory prices have to come down to make 64-bit computing palatable to the masses. Right now, 4GB of DDR 2 memory costs $600 to $900, depending on the speed or brand, and the price has been going up. That's more than the cost of some PCs. Typically, memory only accounts for 8 percent of a PC's component costs.

For its part, Microsoft has been slower than it originally planned in delivering a version of Windows XP that runs on 64-bit x86 processors. AMD has been shipping server chips since early last year and desktop chips since last fall that expand the current x86 architecture to run both 32-bit and 64-bit applications.

Microsoft reiterated Tuesday that such a version will ship by the end of this year and noted that it supports nearly all the features of the 32-bit OS, unlike a more limited 64-bit version of Windows that shipped for use with Intel's Itanium processor.

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.