64-bit stop on the road to Longhorn

Microsoft Corp. rang in what it calls the third decade of Windows with the launch of 64-bit versions of the operating system (OS) for desktop computers and servers.

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates announced the availability of Windows Server 2003 x64 Editions and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition at the start of the company’s annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle.

Gates is scheduled to demonstrate PCs and servers running the new operating systems and 64-bit applications. The 64-bit operating systems offer users greater computing power as systems can process more data per clock cycle and can use larger amounts of memory.

However, while Microsoft expects rapid adoption of the server OS it doesn’t expect the desktop version will be widely adopted. Desktop PC vendors, citing a lack of applications and drivers for the new platform, are expected to be slow in introducing the new Windows XP version.

At WinHEC, Microsoft will repeat its call out to hardware makers to develop drivers for the new operating systems. About 16,000 drivers will ship with the operating systems, approximately half the number that ship with 32-bit Windows XP.

“We have lots of drivers today, but we need them all,” said Jim Allchin, group vice president in charge of Windows in a recent interview. “There are peripherals that have been in existence a while that we would like drivers for.”

Existing 32-bit software will work with the new operating systems but 32-bit drivers will not.

Software vendors including Adobe Systems Inc., McAfee Inc., SAP AG and Oracle Corp. will offer applications built for the x64 versions of Windows.

Microsoft itself plans to offer x64 versions of several of its applications this year and next, including SQL Server, Exchange, Commerce Server, Microsoft Operations Manager and Virtual Server.

“We will continue to ship 32-bit Windows XP primarily up until Longhorn,” said Greg Sullivan, a lead project manager at Microsoft, referring to the code name of the next edition of Microsoft’s Windows system. Only gamers, game developers, digital media enthusiasts and other early adopters are likely to make the move to Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, he said. “It is the guys who are overclocking their CPUs and water cooling their systems,” Sullivan said.

Longhorn is expected late next year, by which time Microsoft expects virtually all desktop PCs will be 64-bit based. But the software switch might take longer. The lack of drivers and applications and the need to test applications might hold back 64-bit adoption and so Microsoft will also ship a 32-bit version of Longhorn.

Most PC users will be running 32-bit operating systems on their 64-bit enabled hardware, said Brian Schmitz, director of marketing for business desktops at Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP). “We expect a lot of users to run 32-bit versions of the operating system going forward, certainly large corporate accounts will need time to evaluate 64-bit,” he said.

Dell Inc. doesn’t plan to offer the x64 version of Windows XP just yet for consumers on its Dimension desktop line, because there aren’t enough applications for consumers to take advantage of 64-bits, Dell spokesman Liem Nguyen said.

The x64 versions of Windows won’t cost more than the 32-bit versions, according to Microsoft. Current owners of 64-bit hardware can swap their copy of 32-bit Windows for an x64 version at no cost, the software maker has said.

Longhorn will also be highlighted by Gates during his presentation. He is scheduled to pitch some Longhorn advances in the area of mobile computing, including features such as auxiliary displays on laptop lids that can display battery status, e-mail and calendar information. He will also address security and manageability for Longhorn.

Gates is slated to present several new devices, including an ultra-slim mobile PC that is as thin as 10 sheets of paper and offers a 6-inch-wide screen, along with all-day battery life, that runs Longhorn. The device has no keyboard, but a touch screen and supports voice and pen-based input, according to Microsoft.

WinHEC attendees will receive a preview version of Longhorn, intended for hardware makers to develop drivers for the operating system. A first Longhorn beta is due by the end of June.

Gearing up for Longhorn, Microsoft will announce a Longhorn logo program, similar to today’s Designed for Windows XP program. PC makers can get a logo for systems equipped with a late model processor, 512M bytes of RAM and a Longhorn Display Driver-capable graphics card so users know they will be able to run Longhorn on that system.

WinHEC runs until Wednesday.

(Tom Krazit in San Francisco contributed to this report.)

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