Microsoft announced two versions: 64-bit Windows Advanced Server Limited Edition for servers and Windows XP 64-Bit Edition for workstations. The 64-bit versions of Windows will be made available on a limited basis, bundled with systems using Intel's Itanium processor.
Itanium, Intel's long-anticipated and much-delayed successor to the Pentium processor, will move computers to a 64-bit architecture from 32-bit. New 64-bit systems can accomplish roughly double the amount of work as 32-bit systems in a given amount of time.
Major computer manufacturers including Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard and IBM have shown off early versions of Itanium systems in the last couple of months.
While both 64-bit operating systems are technically test, or beta, versions, Microsoft in an unusual move will provide product support for both, said Michael Stephenson, Windows 2002 Server product manager. Customers also will receive free upgrades to the final versions when they are available.
For Microsoft, the early test version of 64-bit Windows is a milestone, as the company also prepares for the launch of 32-bit Windows XP. Both the 32-bit and 64-bit desktop versions of Windows XP will ship Oct. 25.
Greg Sullivan, Windows XP product manager, made it clear that 64-bit computing is not for everyone. But for those who need the computing power required of the architecture, their choices are limited to fairly expensive alternatives.
"We basically will take the economics of the PC model, the experience we have in mobilizing high-volume hardware manufacturers, software vendors and device manufacturers, and apply that to this very high-end technical computing space," he said.
More importantly, it clears the way for the Redmond, Wash.-based company to cue up for testing its 64-bit applications, such as its SQL Server database.
"We do have plans to make a 64-bit version of SQL Server available. A beta version will ship this summer, and a final release will happen shortly after we launch the Whistler server family," Stephenson said.
The server operating system launch is slated for early 2002.
Forrester Research analyst Carl Howe said Microsoft has done well to finally clarify uncertainties about its 64-bit Windows plans.
"One of the challenges for Microsoft has been trying to stay on top of the ever slipping Itanium schedule, because frankly, a few months makes a huge difference in how they position this."
At one point, Microsoft had considered releasing a 64-bit version of Windows 2000 Professional that would be available for just a few months preceding the Windows XP version. But Itanium's dimmed future as a production chip helped Microsoft back away from that strategy and go strictly for Windows XP, analysts say.
The 64-bit Windows XP and Advanced Server betas are crucial for Intel's setting the stage for successor chip McKinley, said Gartner analyst Michael Silver.
"Intel wants to get people on Itanium now and testing so that when 64-bit becomes a more useful platform, they're ready for it," he said. "They need to start to get developers working on 64-bit applications. This is where the real work starts."
Itanium and computers containing it will compete against more expensive Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) servers and workstations running Unix. Those systems are sold by Sun Microsystems, IBM and other makers.
The release of the 64-bit beta is as important for Microsoft as for Intel, said Guernsey Research analyst Chris LeTocq
"From a revenue perspective it is probably insignificant, but from a credibility's standpoint it is important," he said. "Having a 64-bit OS out there and being able to sway with the big boys, that's significant."
Stephenson said Microsoft has been working with Intel for about five years to deliver a 64-bit operating system. "We're still in the phase of working with (PC makers) to do early customer evaluations, and we're still working with software developers to get applications ready," he said.
Microsoft has identified about 300 applications being developed for Intel 64-bit processors.
Although Itanium has long been anticipated, its arrival may be muted, despite the availability of 64-bit Windows XP. Intel on Wednesday acknowledged that the chip, which initially will be used in PC workstations and servers, and telecommunications servers, is merely a way station to its successor, McKinley, due next year.
"This is just a shakedown cruise to make sure 64-bit is ready for prime time," Howe said. "This is a far cry from what everybody expected--turning it into a development--but it's also fairly realistic. This is not for widespread adoption. This is not a system for which you should be planning to run Oracle this year."
While Linux and other operating systems will also be available for Itanium, Intel is banking on Windows and its huge market share to drive sales, analysts say.
"Intel really wants a Microsoft OS to run on Itanium," Silver said. With 64-bit versions of Linux also available, "Microsoft doesn't want to not be on the platform with Unix variants out there for Itanium."
Beyond testing, real-world use may have to wait until 64-bit applications reach the market. The problem is a lack of applications, analysts say.
"Right now, if it's an OS without apps, what good is it?" Silver asked. "Even though 32-bit apps run, it's not something you don't want to do."
While Itanium will run 32-bit applications in emulation mode--a way of simulating older processors--testers report unsatisfactory performance.
"You use this in 32-bit emulation and you're going to be underimpressed," Howe said.
With the delivery of 64-bit Windows XP and Advanced Server, computer makers can finally start selling Itanium-based systems, which initially are expected to be used for more demanding applications.
Dell on Tuesday launched its first Itanium server, the PowerEdge 7150, which will be available by August.
Gartner predicts that initial 64-bit system adoption will be on servers. "We won't see it as mainstream on the desktop until 2006, 2007," Silver said.
But for PC makers hoping to sell Itanium systems this year, the repositioning "is clearly going to be a disappointment for them," Howe said. "They were hoping it was going to rev up their sales. Saying it's a development is not the message they want their customers to hear."