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Microsoft launches 64-bit Windows

Long-awaited versions of the OS geared for speed finally see the light of day.

After revving the engine for quite a while, Microsoft is hoping to take 64-bit computing into the fast lane.

The software maker, which has been tooling around with the 64-bit version of Windows for the better part of two years, is announcing the general availability of the long-awaited product later on Monday. The company will start selling 64-bit editions of both Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Professional.

The new Windows won't be showing up on retail shelves, though. Customers who buy a desktop or server with a 64-bit chip will have the option of getting the new operating system, while people who own an existing 64-bit machine will have the option of trading in their old 32-bit Windows for the 64-bit upgrade.

Microsoft's announcement is welcome news, particularly for chipmaker AMD, which has had 64-bit server chips on the market for two years and 64-bit desktop processors for 18 months. The software maker issued a test version of 64-bit Windows in the fall of 2003, when AMD released its first Athlon 64 processors. A final version was planned for early last year, but encountered a number of delays.

"With today's release of Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 x64 Editions and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, customers can now fully realize the power of the AMD Opteron processor," AMD CEO Hector Ruiz said in a statement. Of course, while AMD has been waiting, rival Intel has come out with similar chips of its own.

The so-called x64 versions of Windows support chips from Intel and AMD that have added 64-bit instructions to the existing Pentium and Athlon architectures. Microsoft already has a version of Windows for Intel's high-end 64-bit Itanium chip, which uses a completely distinct instructions set.

Drivers wanted
Now that Microsoft has finally finished its 64-bit work, the company is doing all it can to get others to follow suit. Having the hardware and software isn't the only thing that is needed. In order to effectively work in 64-bit environments, computer users also need updated drivers for their hardware add-ons, which are things like scanners and printers.

That is the one area where Microsoft still needs help--a message Microsoft executives have stressed for some time and are likely to reiterate at this week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle. So far, about 16,000 drivers have been rewritten to support the new operating system.

Already, PC makers are hopping on the bandwagon, particularly on the server side. Hewlett-Packard, for example, plans to announce support for the 64-bit version of Windows Server across its ProLiant line of servers.

"It's not quite there on the client," said Greg Sullivan, a lead product manager in Microsoft's Windows unit. Sullivan said that for now, the desktop 64-bit Windows version is likely to appeal mainly to the hardest of the hard-core enthusiasts--people doing video rendering, or game development, for example.

Dell said it will install the 64-bit operating system on its Precision workstation line and on its PowerEdge servers. Orders for the Dell Precision 470 and 670 workstations can be placed starting Monday, while the server OS will be available on Dell systems starting in June, the computer manufacturer said.

While right now it is the game developers that are likely to run 64-bit Windows, the gamers themselves won't be far behind.

"In the Longhorn time frame, we think it (64-bit computing) will be mainstream." Sullivan said. Microsoft has said that Longhorn--the next version of Windows--will come in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors.

Long and winding road
Although the road to 64-bit Windows has taken longer than Microsoft once hoped, Windows Chief Jim Allchin said in a recent interview that the shift is now inevitable. Intel and AMD aren't charging significantly more for chips with the added abilities, nor is Microsoft charging more for its operating system.

"I see it as preordained," Allchin said. By the end of the year, Allchin said it will be quite difficult to find a server with a 32-bit processor. Desktop PCs will move slower, but 64-bit PCs should make up a significant chunk of shipments by next year.

When computing does make the leap, Allchin said the benefits will be significant, even if many of them are not yet apparent.

The clearest impact of 64-bit computing is the ability to deal with more than 4GB of physical memory. However, only the most sophisticated applications and databases are bumping up against this limit today. Down the road, though, Allchin said whole new ways of computing will open up. Imagine, how fast searching might be if all of one's e-mail, for example, were loaded into memory.

But Allchin said there are performance gains that many types of programs can today get if companies are willing to slightly rewrite their applications. He pointed to Cakewalk, a music program that got a 40 percent gain by moving to a 64-bit system.

There are also ways that Microsoft can use the added bits to enhance security, he said. Specifically, Allchin said Microsoft will make better use of the no-execute chip feature, which helps prevent overflow errors.

"It doesn't make things perfect," Allchin said. But, he added, "it is another way of preventing mischief from taking place."