Microsoft sees smoother 64-bit switch

It should be easier for the IT industry to transition from 32-bit to 64-bit processing than it was to switch from 16-bit to 32-bit -- a "messy" time in the computer sector's history, according to Bill Gates.

Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect recalled the bumpy ride from 16-bit to 32-bit computing during his keynote speech Monday at WinHEC 2005, his company's conference for hardware developers held in Seattle. Here the software giant unveiled its new 64-bit offerings for public consumption.

Gates said the move from 16-bit to 32-bit wasn't as smooth as it should have been.

"That was messy," he said, adding later in his speech that the switch to 64-bit computing would be less arduous on the industry and on users than was the 16 to 32 upgrade.

John Borozan, senior product manager, Windows Server business group, explained that a number of factors made the transition from 16-bit to 32-bit a rough one. For instance, hardware and software developments were out of synch. The first 32-bit microprocessors popped onto the scene in 1988, but it took another six years for these high-performing chips to really catch on. That made it difficult for software makers to know which of the two -- 16 or 32 -- they should build towards.

The move from 32 to 64 should be smoother, Borozan said, echoing Gates. The 64-bit hardware is catching on substantially faster than did 32-bit processors. In just two years 64-bit computing has gone from a future technology to a decided here-and-now reality. Microsoft is building some of its 64-bit operating systems to handle both 64-bit and 32-bit processing requirements.

Microsoft is all about 64-bit processing these days. At WinHEC the company announced the Windows XP Professional x64 edition and Windows Server 2003 x64, both of which work on 64-bit microprocessors.

The operating systems improve on their 32-bit predecessors in terms of security with a "no execute" capability that foils many malicious programs, according to Gates, and quicker processing, which should appeal to computing powerhouses like animation studios.

Gates said some Microsoft customers would benefit from 64-bit processing sooner than others. "We're going to see this quite rapidly on the server," he said, pointing out that terminal services operating on 64-bit platforms perform nearly three times faster than those running on 32-bit platforms.

"On the client, it will take more time," since most desktop users don't immediately need the performance enhancements that 64-bit computing affords, Gates said.

"We're really dependent on what's going on with the hardware drivers," he said, imploring driver makers to keep pace with the 64-bit trend and build drivers that work with the new systems.

In his keynote Gates also outlined features in Microsoft's upcoming operating system, code-named "Longhorn," such as a new graphical user interface with animated windows, virtual folders that collect all of a particular kind of document -- sorted by author, size, type, anything -- according to user-set parameters, and improved image resolution.

He described new user rights in Longhorn that should let people do everything they want to do on the operating system, such as hot patching and PC-to-PC migrations, without having to employ "administrator" rights. In the past, users had to have administrator access to get things done on Microsoft operating systems. Gates said his company had trouble finding "the right balance" between security and usability; the firm aims to make the scales even with Longhorn.

Gates also displayed a number of new PC form factors, notably the prototype "ultra mobile" machine, which weighs less than two pounds. It's not much larger than a personal digital assistant; it's supposed to provide enough computing power to satisfy users as a machine secondary to their prime desktop devices.

Mark Bialic, president of Eurocom, a computer maker, attended WinHEC. He said it's good to see that operating systems like the ones Microsoft builds are catching up to 64-bit hardware advancements, such as Intel's and Advanced Micro Devices's (AMD) 64-bit processors.

"It's recognition from Microsoft that there are some high-end markets, like engineering and so on, that they can utilize," Bialic said. "That's not the way it is right now. Those markets have been hindered by insufficient operating systems."

But he also said Microsoft is being somewhat "narrow minded" with its future computing platforms, like the ultra mobile PC. Bialic figures the software giant is missing out on a potential market for mobile workstations and even mobile servers -- the sorts of devices Eurocom specializes in.

Gates outlined his company's roadmap for new software, saying 2005 would see a new SQL Server and a new Visual Studio suite for developers, both designed to work with 64-bit architectures, as well as a 64-bit version of Commerce Server and a 64-bit BizTalk Server. Microsoft plans to unveil the final version of Longhorn by the end of the year.

Jim Allchin, Microsoft's group vice-president, platforms, said the company reserves the right to amend its tune. "If we're in trouble with quality at any point, we will change the schedule."

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