The 64-bit PC is coming, but when?

Consumers will get their hands on 64-bit computers -- that much is certain. The only question is when.

A panel of industry heavyweights Wednesday gathered at the Platform Conference to discuss the future prospects of PCs that use 64-bit processors as opposed to current ones with 32-bit processors. Using the 64-bit chips would mean that PCs could take advantage of much larger stores of memory, paving the way for powerful home computers and software.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) is rolling out its first 64-bit PC processor this year and is hoping for quick adoption, but most members of the panel said it will take quite some time before the average consumer goes in search of 64-bit PCs.

"You put your hardware out and then someone does something with it that you never anticipated and no one can live without it from that point on," said Howard Cohen, manager of strategic alliances in AMD's computation products group. "At that point, people will say I need an AMD processor, and I will retire on some desert island somewhere with Bill Gates being my servant."

High-end server makers have used 64-bit chips in their systems for years. A number of software makers, particularly database and business software vendors, have tuned their code to take advantage of the extra horsepower in these computers. But while extra memory is a clear advantage for a large, demanding database, some industry pundits question how useful it will be for desktop applications.

The panelists agreed that no current desktop applications would require a 64-bit processor but did point to a couple of areas where such a chip might one day be useful. Richard McDougall, senior engineer at Sun Microsystems Inc., said that ever-expanding e-mail inboxes could be a driver for 64-bit PCs given that more powerful chips would help sort through mail files at a faster clip. Other panelists pointed to video games and other graphics-heavy software as potential benefactors of 64-bit chips.

However, the overall view of the panel was that a new type of application would emerge that would make the best use of 64-bit PCs.

"The computer industry has for twenty years said, 'If you build it, it will come,'" said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at research company Insight 64 in Saratoga, California. "For the most part, this has worked."

Several Platform Conference attendees questioned the value of 64-bit PCs, saying that type of power is not really needed on the home computer and that hyping the technology is a fruitless exercise. One audience member, in particular, challenged the notion that a "killer application" for 64-bit PCs is lurking somewhere out there in a developer's mind.

The panelists responded that users will likely migrate to 64-bit PCs when the cost is right. If 64-bit processors are as inexpensive as 32-bit chips, then consumers would naturally pick the more powerful machines.

Brookwood noted that AMD has traditionally sold inexpensive chips, which could help spur the adoption of its upcoming 64-bit processor.

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Ashlee Vance.

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