Microsofts Balancing Act

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-03-14 Print this article Print

Although 64-bit software is destined to take over at some point, the company appears to be balancing Vistas arrival with planning for the existence of 32-bit OS software for some time to come. "Microsoft had planned to ship initial UEFI support with Windows Vista client," the presentation states.
However, several factors lead "to internal re-prioritization," it says. They include the arrival of UEFI 2.0—a revised, industry standard version of the interface, created by the United EFI Forum—and the fact that, Microsoft says, only a small number of systems have been built with EFI thus far, and PC makers interests were leaning toward server, where EFI can provide benefits such as allowing larger numbers of add-in cards and eliminating problems with option ROMs.
"At this time, we expect our first support for native EFI boots will come with the release of Windows Server," a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed in an e-mail to eWEEK. "We also expect to support native EFI boots on 64-bit Windows Vista systems in the future; although this will come after the product launches later this year. We are working closely with our industry partners to ensure that we can provide a high-quality solution that works across the many different platforms on which Windows runs, and we view EFI as another reason that the industry as a whole will eventually shift to 64-bit based systems." UEFI, ironically, supports the Microsoft plan. The firmware was designed to work with both 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems and to be backward-compatible with OSes designed to work with BIOS—on the desktop, the bulk of the OSes which will be used are 32-bits—using a special Software Compatibility Module to emulate BIOS functions. Too many versions of Vista? Read more here. Thus, UEFI Forum members, which include Microsoft, Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and BIOS makers American Megatrends, Insyde Technologies and Phoenix Technologies, agreed to focus on delivering 64-bit UEFI implementations in PCs, using compatibility modules as a bridge to non-EFI OSes, a person familiar with the matter said. Building PCs with UEFI and a compatibility module offers the most logical path, given that it would allow a PC to run the widest variety of OSes, including Windows XP, Vista and Linux, then upgrade to a 64-bit, UEFI-based OS, which would run natively on top of UEFI, said Mike Richmond, manager of platform software at Intels Core Software Division, a segment of its Software and Solutions Group. Richmond declined to comment on Microsofts OS plans. However, "Nobody is going to build a system that just boots [using] EFI for a long time," he said. "If somebody buys a PC to run Windows, they want the option to be able to run older versions. That leads to the decision that most OEMs are going to make that they will include some sort of BIOS backward compatibility, even in EFI platforms," Richmond said. Microsoft, in the IDF presentation last week, said it would not support 32-bit UEFI at all, reversing prior plans. During an August 2005 IDF presentation, the company said that both Vista and Longhorn Server would support EFI, although only 64-bit UEFI, not 32-bit. Microsofts reference to delivering UEFI support in subsequent releases of Vista implies it might be aiming to roll it into a service pack upgrade. Microsoft is testing a mechanism to upgrade Windows on-the-fly. Read more here. Given that it hasnt yet shipped Vista, Microsoft has not said when a Vista Service Pack 1 might arrive. It took about a year for the company to deliver Windows XP SP1. Vista R2, the next full-fledged version of Vista, isnt expected until 2008. But, thanks to the continued support of BIOS and the ability for PC makers to use compatibility modules with UEFI implementations, the fact that Microsoft wont deliver native UEFI support immediately isnt likely to have a major affect on the industry. Logic states that if a PC can boot a 32-bit OS using the compatibility module, two different versions of EFI, one for 32-bits and one for 64-bits, are unnecessary, Richmond said. "Everybody in UEFI [forum] said, It doesnt make sense to do that. Lets have the OS and the hardware match in terms of bitness," he said. "Once you go down that chain of logic, you end up with it only makes sense for OS to support UEFI with 64-bits." Some PC makers have already begun implementing EFI firmware on their own, using compatibility modules to run Windows. These machines are likely based on an earlier version of the EFI specification, dubbed EFI 1.1. Intel created the specification and released its own software framework based on it to open source, before the arrival of the United EFI Forum. Best-known among early EFI adopters is Apple Computer, which appears to be using the open-source framework for its first Intel-based Macs, including the iMac all-in-one desktop, MacBook Pro notebook and Mac Mini small desktops. One result of using EFI, Apple said in a presentation last week, is that its new Macs boot up to two-times faster. Given Vistas lack of initial EFI support, the new Macs are unlikely to be able to boot the OS at first. That is unless Apple—which appears to have no reason to do so—or others cook up a compatibility module. Numerous Intel Core Duo notebooks, which came out this quarter, also employ the new system, persons familiar with the industry have said. Although widespread adoption of EFI, once expected to begin as soon as late 2006, now seems like a proposition for later in 2007 or beyond. "This is about reinvesting in an area of the [PC] platform that hasnt been invested in a long time," Richmond said. "If it takes a little longer, it takes a little longer." Additional reporting by Mary Jo Foley. For reader response to this article, click here. Check out eWEEK.coms for Microsoft and Windows news, views and analysis.

John G. Spooner John G. Spooner, a senior writer for eWeek, chronicles the PC industry, in addition to covering semiconductors and, on occasion, automotive technology. Prior to joining eWeek in 2005, Mr. Spooner spent more than four years as a staff writer for CNET, where he covered computer hardware. He has also worked as a staff writer for ZDNET News.

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