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Linux companies beat Microsoft in Itanium support

A version of Windows for Intel's upcoming high-end Itanium chip won't be available when the chip arrives, but rival operating system Linux will.

A version of Microsoft Windows for Intel's upcoming high-end Itanium chip won't be available when the chip arrives, but rival operating system Linux will.

Itanium is scheduled to ship in the first half of 2001, but a new version of Windows tailored for the chip won't arrive until the second half, Intel and Microsoft representatives said. Meanwhile, compatible production versions of Linux from Red Hat, Turbolinux and Caldera Systems are scheduled to debut at the same time as the chip itself, the Linux companies said.

The implications for corporate reputations are probably greater than the financial effects of the Windows lag, however. Itanium, its operating systems, and applications such as databases all are considered evaluation versions not yet ready for production use.

"Maybe from a marketing standpoint it sounds very good to say (Microsoft has) the same functions as the big boys. Except not too many people are really going to be able to use it," said Robert Frances Group analyst Cal Braunstein. Corporate customers already are having a difficult time justifying the cost of moving to Windows 2000, a minor step compared with the switch to a totally new chip.

The slipped Windows schedule contradicts the words of Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, who told CNET News.com in a September interview that Windows would ship at the same time as the chip.

"We'll have a release that's very solid," Ballmer said, adding, "I suspect we'll do some stuff even after that to put a final shine on it." He also said the initial versions would be sent only to computer manufacturers, while a retail release would wait until Whistler, the successor to Windows 2000.

Itanium, though arriving later and slower than expected, is still a critical chip for Intel's future. The new CPU is intended to spearhead Intel's attempt to convert its dominance in desktop computers and low-end servers into success in high-end systems built with CPUs from Sun Microsystems, IBM, SGI and Compaq Computer.

Itanium will be Intel's first 64-bit CPU, a feature that will allow computers running on it to contain vast databases in memory and speed some mathematical calculations. Competing chips from Compaq and others have been 64-bit for years.

To take advantage of Itanium, though, software must be rebuilt not only for the 64-bit architecture but also for the new language the chips speak. While Itanium chips will come with circuitry that enables them to run software written for current 32-bit Intel chips, the real benefits of the chip come only when the software speaks Itanium's native tongue.

The new chip hasn't been easy for Intel. Hewlett-Packard, which invented the underlying architecture of Itanium, originally expected the chip to debut in the mid- to late-1990s, according Dick Lampman, leader of the project. Intel hoped to release the chip in 1999 but has delayed it twice since then.

And even the most recent delay to the first half of 2001 hasn't been final. Rick Rudd, product manager for IBM's line of IntelliStation workstations, said Tuesday he expected Itanium computers to debut in late March, but sources familiar with Intel's recent plans say the plan is for a May release.

Regardless, that's sooner than Windows for Itanium will arrive.

The release of 64-bit versions of Windows will come in the second half of 2001, at the same time as the release of Whistler, a spokeswoman said.

The release of Whistler and accompanying 64-bit Windows for Itanium will be broken into two stages, one for desktop versions and a later one for server versions, the spokeswoman said. Both stages will be in the second half of 2001.

Linux companies, naturally, see a chance to attack their biggest rival.

Linux has a lead over Windows because its collaborative programming model is open to anyone and is more flexible than Microsoft's proprietary methods, said Craig Oda, vice president of alliances and product marketing at Turbolinux. Linux has been running for years on 64-bit chips, notably Compaq's Alpha, he added.

Turbolinux is shipping a developer's release of Linux for Itanium already and will ship a production version when the new systems arrive, Oda said.

Red Hat spokeswoman Melissa London and Caldera Systems spokeswoman Nancy Pomeroy said their companies' versions will be available when Itanium ships as well.

Microsoft will also have test versions of 64-bit Windows available at that time, the Microsoft spokeswoman said.