Windows 7 May Trigger 64-bit OS Adoption

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The executive in charge of delivering Windows 7, the next version of Windows, made an appeal this week to developers to put in extra effort to write 64-bit versions of their applications as well as 32-bit programs to run on the new operating system.

"Please, please develop for 64-bit ... we think a lot of people are going to run in 64-bit with Windows 7 … So do everything you can to bring your code up to speed on 64-bit," Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft senior vice president of Windows and Windows Live engineering, told attendees at the company's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles.

The majority of new PCs sold today have 64-bit processors but are still running 32-bit operating systems, including Windows Vista x86. That looks as if it may be about to change.

Indeed, some analysts, and definitely Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) officials, are anticipating a point around the scheduled delivery of Windows 7 in late 2009 or early 2010 when the move to 64-bit desktop applications may reach a tipping point.

However, predicting when exactly such a tectonic shift will occur is dicey.

"It's too hard to determine when the tipping point is going to be, but if you look at the roadmaps for both [the PC vendors and Microsoft], I would say it will happen over the next three years," Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, told InternetNews.com.

Chipmakers Intel and AMD, Bajarin added, have been pushing to move the industry to 64-bit computing for several years already and today that manifests itself in the latest crop of new PCs for sale. The advent of quad-core and eight-core CPUs is likely to accelerate that shift, accompanied by the continuing decline in RAM prices.

The Anecdotal Evidence

In late July, for instance, Chris Flores, a director on the Windows client communications team, wrote a post on the Vista Team blog, to the effect that Microsoft is seeing an upsurge of users connecting to Windows Update who have both 64-bit PCs and are running Vista x64.

"The installed base of 64-bit Windows Vista PCs, as a percentage of all Windows Vista systems, has more than tripled in the U.S. in the last three months, while worldwide adoption has more than doubled during the same period," Flores wrote.

"Put more simply, usage of 64-bit Windows Vista is growing much more rapidly than 32-bit. Based on current trends, this growth will accelerate as the retail channel shifts to supplying a rapidly increasing assortment of 64-bit desktops and laptops," Flores continued.

In point of fact, the major PC vendors, including Dell and HP, are selling Vista x64 with increasing numbers of PCs and notebooks, particularly ones used for imaging applications.

Microsoft has had 64-bit editions of Windows for some time. In 2005, the company released Windows XP x64 and followed that up with Windows Vista x64 when it shipped Vista in early 2007. Windows 7 will come in both 64-bit and 32-bit editions as well.

However, XP is scheduled for gradual extinction – with a few exceptions such as for use on ultra low-cost laptops dubbed 'netbooks' – beginning in April 2009 when mainstream support runs out for XP. (Microsoft will continue to provide "extended" support, which includes critical security patches and fee-based support, for XP until 2014).

Meanwhile, by most reports, Vista has been a slow seller, although with as many as 180 million units shipped so far, it's hard to call Vista a flop. Throughout, enthusiasm for 64-bit releases of XP and Vista has been growing, mostly unnoticed until recently.

"The reason we're focusing on 64-bit is the market is moving so rapidly in that direction developers should optimize for it and pursue that opportunity," Debby Fry Wilson, senior director for Windows product management, told InternetNews.com.

None of the major analysis firms have yet compiled any tracking data to indicate how many units, or what percentage of overall Vista sales, have been x64 installations, partly because it is often one of multiple OS options that users have to choose from when they buy a new PC.

Thanks for more memory

For early adopters, the attraction has been the 64-bit edition's ability to address more than 4 GB of RAM – the maximum limit for 32-bit operating systems, Vista x86 included.

Among the factors that have kept many users from switching to 64-bit Vista to date has been a shortage of 64-bit device drivers. Vista x64 cannot run 32-bit device drivers, which relegates older printers and other hardware to the scrap heap.

Added to that, writing device drivers is a significant investment on the part of hardware makers. To this point, many hardware vendors have not been willing to ante up to write 64-bit drivers, especially for older hardware products.

While that situation has improved significantly in the nearly two years since Vista x64 first shipped, there is still a shortage of large numbers of true 64-bit applications. Vista x64 runs 32-bit applications like Office 2007 in an emulation mode.

Although there are many applications that have no driving need for more memory than a 32-bit operating system can provide – Office, for example – there are application areas where the more memory, the better, such as computer-aided design (CAD) and video editing.

To be sure, there is a growing list of applications written to take advantage of Vista x64. These include high-end graphics and photo processing as well as video and audio editing and streaming.

"Over time we'll see more 64-bit-optimized programs hit the market, which promise dramatic performance and experience improvements," Flores' post said. An additional area that tends to drive adoption of new technologies is, of course, games, he added.

Where's the 'Killer App?'

The question is, what will be the so-called "killer app" that will finally trigger the shift to 64-bit OSes, and Windows 7 x64 specifically?

"When you get into the type of applications that really profit from having more than 4 GB of memory, most are related to graphics," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com. For business customers, that could also include running multiple virtualized environments, he added.

Creative Strategies' Bajarin agrees but suggests that another possible killer app may be the evolving vision of integrated media and content based networks such as that envisioned by Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie. This week, Ozzie announced new pieces of the company's software-plus-services, cloud-based computing initiative, such as the Azure development platform and Live Mesh.

This article was first published on InternetNews.com.

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