64-bit Windows: It's time to get serious

What do Windows 7 and Windows NT have in common? Despite being separated by 16 years, they're both available as 32-bit operating systems; and it's time for Microsoft to move on.

What do Windows 7 and Windows NT have in common? Despite being separated by 16 years, they're both available as 32-bit operating systems; and it's time for Microsoft to move on.

Despite the existence of 64-bit Windows 7 (along with 64-bit Vista and XP), consumers and businesses are continuing to adopt 32-bit versions of Windows, and with good reason. Many hardware vendors still aren't releasing 64-bit drivers, and businesses may want to hang onto a 32-bit OS for maximum compatibility.

It's time Redmond started looking forward rather than backward.

Unfortunately, this continued inertia will be to our peril. A continued desire to hang onto 32-bit for compatibility means hardware vendors have an excuse to continue to only release 32-bit drivers and applications, and the process goes around and around.

This loop leaves businesses in a trap where they will want to use a 32-bit system to ensure maximum compatibility, but get stuck with the physical RAM limitation of roughly 4GB that comes from a 32-bit OS.

It is well known that 32-bit operating systems can only address two to the power of 32 bytes of maximum system memory (4,294MB). On the other hand 64-bit systems can address two to the power of 64 bytes of maximum memory (18,446,744,073,709MB, commonly quoted in practical terms as 16 billion gigabytes).

Let's put this equation another way. In early 2008, IDC estimated the total amount of all storage globally to be 281 billion gigabytes. So theoretically if you could convert all the storage on the planet to RAM, a single classroom of 20 64-bit machines could address it all.

Programs optimised for 64-bit systems should hypothetically also be faster, as processes such as encryption can take advantage of the extra address space.

This means that the transition to 64-bit operating systems is a one time hurdle for the IT community. 64-bit should service the needs of IT for at least 20 years.

Every box builder knows that a cheap way to quickly upgrade the performance of a system (particularly for multitasking) is to drop in a little extra RAM, which is dirt cheap compared to other system components like CPUs and GPUs.

Apple is already ahead of the curve on this one. The company's latest version of OS X 10.5 (Leopard) ships 64-bit as standard.

Action on this issue needs to come from Microsoft's side. Users are keen to adopt 64-bit operating systems, but Microsoft needs to use its massive market muscle and demand that all products designed to work with Windows 7 be 64-bit compatible. It's time Redmond started looking forward rather than backward.