When Windows Goes All 64-Bit

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-09-10 Print this article Print

64-bit Windows is becoming more common and will eventually be the norm. Such transitions never go as smoothly as you'd like.

Everyone, even Microsoft, is openly talking about Windows 7. I think that there will be a 32-bit edition of Windows 7, but I also think it may be the last such version of Windows, And I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft takes steps in it to encourage adoption of 64-bit Windows, moving us further on the path to a Windows 8, which may be entirely 64-bit.

There's a rule about Windows that most people never seem to appreciate fully: Every new version of Windows is designed for the next generation of hardware. When users upgrade XP to Vista on circa-2004 hardware and declare it sucky, they miss the point. This same effect is true of other operating systems to varying degrees; certainly it's true of MacOS, where they get to coordinate even more tightly. It's less true, I suppose, with Unix and variants because there's less of a partnership with hardware vendors.

A related important point about the cross-generational period is that upgrades just don't work as well as most preloaded installations. OEMs, at least in theory, can put a lot of work into getting their preloaded Windows and drivers to work optimally, while a user upgrading a previous version is likely to encounter tasks, identifying not only what should be running on the system but what should not, which they will have difficulty performing optimally.

The transition period, in which the mainstream shifts from 32-bit to 64-bit, is fraught with peril for Microsoft and users. There are many ways it can go badly. Microsoft has already tipped one of them in this blog by Windows exec Chris Flores. Essentially, it's the same hardware transition problem I just mentioned: Users trying to do an upgrade themselves may lack the technical experience and the detailed information about the hardware. He strongly recommends buying a preloaded system. OEMs aren't perfect at this; consider this blog in which Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Michael Fortin gives one example of suboptimal configuration by an OEM, although the data is limited to system boot time performance.

Microsoft has a 64-bit computing site for servers, but I can't find a similar one for desktops. There are individual pages for 64-bit Windows XP and Vista

64-bit Windows may seem like a far-out techie luxury to most of us, but Microsoft already has quite a lot of experience with it: There have already been two 64-bit versions of Windows desktop and server. Remember, most of the core of the OS and much of the higher-level bits are common to both, and 64-bit Windows Server is a heavily used operating system. In fact, Microsoft has already announced that Windows Server 2008 will be the last Windows Server version with a 32-bit edition. When the mainstream desktop moves to 64 bits, it will, in many ways, be Version 3 or 4 of Windows 64.

Nothing ever seems to substitute for a mass public test, but it's not like they will be rookies at it. And according to the same Flores blog, the number and percentage of 64-bit Vista systems are jumping substantially worldwide, and even more domestically.

ZDNet's Ed Bott extrapolates from Flores' numbers that "... at least 20% of all Vista PCs sold in the second quarter of this year came with 64-bit editions of Windows Vista pre-installed. By fall, it's possible, even likely, that we'll reach a tipping point, with more than 50% of new PCs sold at retail coming with 64-bit editions of Windows Vista pre-installed."

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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