At the launch of Microsoft's 64-bit versions of Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 late last month, Bill Gates promised great things for the "64-bit decade". The transition from 8-bit computing to 16-bit required a reinvention of the operating system, and even moving to 32-bit ten years later was still a bit messy. But the shift to 64-bit hardware and software will be different, according to the Microsoft boss. "This is going to be the simplest one, and it's going to happen far more rapidly than any of the others," Gates claims.
Gates may have a clear vision of the significance of 64-bit but that doesn't necessarily mean that all his potential customers are similarly informed. Many IT professionals in enterprise-sized companies, and their smaller brethren, are probably at a loss over exactly what the benefits of 64-bit are — a knowledge gap that Microsoft has to tackle for the technology to really take off.
But along with the carrot of potential benefits Microsoft will also be wielding the usual stick of forced compliance. A lot of companies are going to end up buying 64-bit hardware such as servers anyway, for the simple reason that 32-bit hardware will be phased out. Microsoft's Jim Allchin, group vice-president for platforms, has said it will be difficult to buy a 32-bit server by the end of the year.
Unlike 32-bit computing, which introduced immediate and dramatic improvements, it seems likely that many organisations will end up with a 64-bit infrastructure and only afterwards begin to discover its benefits. "It's possible that everyone will have something they never use," says analyst James Governor of RedMonk. "Just look at Microsoft Office — people only use 5 percent of its functionality, but we all buy it."
That said, 64-bit computing can offer real benefits, and many analysts say it is now a mainstream reality. The wide availability of 64-bit capable chips that also support 32-bit applications, and now the launch of 64-bit Windows, mean that there are essentially no extra costs or complications associated with making the switch, at least on the hardware side. "The difference is that the hardware is cheap now. There is commodity pricing on servers, that is different," says Governor.