Driver shortage could derail 64-bit

Microsoft, Intel and Dell are all worried that users who embrace 64-bit computing may not realize how many drivers they need to update.

Companies who make the move to 64-bit computing could be hit by a lack of compatible hardware drivers, representatives from some of the world's largest IT companies warned on Tuesday.

Attendees at The CTO Mandate event in London heard evidence that 64-bit applications and architectures could deliver significant productivity gains. But speakers from Microsoft, Intel and Dell all agreed that the issue of device drivers was a hurdle that needs clearing.

"The hardware you buy has to come with right device drivers for 64-bit," explained David Overton, senior partner technical specialist at Microsoft. "The problem is, most people don't think of printers as needing hardware drivers. So you need to go and ask the manufacturer for a 64-bit driver for that three-year old printer. That's where we see things coming unstuck," Overton added.

Speaking later with ZDNet UK, Overton explained that his concern wasn't so much that 64-bit drivers would be scarce — Microsoft, he said, will ship around 50,000 64-bit drivers for its 64-bit operating systems. Instead, he is worried that users may not realise how many devices will be affected by a shift to 64-bit, especially if the relevant manufacturer is no longer in business.

Microsoft launched its first 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Professional last month — an important milestone in the move from 32-bit to 64-bit computing on both the desktop and server, even though Microsoft was effectively playing catch-up with other operating systems such as Solaris, OS X and Linux.

Intel, which has also been pushing 64-bit computing over recent years with its Itanium chip, appears to share Microsoft's concerns. "Sixty four-bit computing is something that everyone has heard of, but not everyone gets the implications," said Gordon Graylish, director of products and solutions for Intel.

Hugh Jenkins, Dell's server marketing manager, agreed. "Some work has been done, but there's some still to do on 64-bit drivers," he told the audience of senior IT professionals.

Concern about this issue clearly extends right to the very top of Microsoft. Over a year ago, speaking at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Bill Gates urged hardware manufacturers to start writing 64-bit drivers for Windows. "There's a real call to action from us here. Let's make sure the device drivers are not a gating factor for people moving to 64-bit," said Gates.

The CTO Mandate was organised by the European Technology Forum, which is owned by CNET Networks, publisher of ZDNet UK.

ZDNet UK's Graeme Wearden reported from London.