AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Creating a 64-bit traffic jam

AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Creating a 64-bit traffic jam

In hardware vendor marketing materials, you won't find much more than buzzwords a-buzzin' over 64-bit technology. The lack of enthusiasm has buyers shrugging. Do we need 64 bits to run 32-bit operating systems and applications? Let's put it this way: Many commercial developers are prioritising 64-bit ports of their Windows and Mac OS X applications just below vacuuming out their power supplies.

You can't blame them. It's hard to get excited about new technology that doesn't seem to excite even those who make it.

Among the offerings from first-tier systems makers, the most mainstream of the 64-bit boxes is the $US1300 iMac G5.

But go to the page that Apple Computer dedicates to the machine and look for the phrase "64-bit". I found it exactly once: It's "ready to run modern 64-bit applications". Ready? Modern? They're both waffle words.

Hope you like waffles. AMD, Apple, Intel, Red Hat and Novell's Suse unit have all proclaimed 64 bits or bust. But when it comes to giving you bona fide reasons to buy the advanced technology they're selling at PC prices, the person equipped to answer that question just stepped out of the office. What could possess vendors to bury the benefits of the biggest leap in technology in many years?

Microsoft possesses them. It's accepted - even by those who would shoot any spokesperson speaking such blasphemy in public - that the real 64-bit revolution is stalled while we all wait for 64-bit Windows. What we have now, by tacit vendor agreement, is an extended dress rehearsal.

Microsoft is a convenient fall guy, but it didn't cause this traffic jam. AMD handed Opteron's keys to Microsoft in a ceremony at the Opteron launch event. A Microsoft guy in a polo shirt took the podium to say there would be a 64-bit edition of Windows. But he couldn't say when. AMD returned to the podium to tell the puzzled crowd not to worry; Opteron matters from the jump. Oh, and while you're all waiting for Windows, enjoy the darling little penguin yo-yos on the table at the back.

AMD put Microsoft in the position of gating 64-bit technology in the broad market. And Apple, which couches all its mass marketing in terms of what it does that Intel and Microsoft don't do, gave Microsoft the keys as well. The Tiger release of OS X isn't timed to compete with Longhorn; it's set to compete with 64-bit Windows XP and Windows 2003 Server.

Yes, it's all about money. But putting that aside, it isn't all about creating a base of Opterons on which 64-bit Windows can land while Apple rides along.

It's about education. Vendors are relying purely on the allure of the number 64 not because Microsoft hasn't yet legitimised 64-bit computing. HP, IBM and Sun RISC systems took care of that, while AMD and Apple added value and usability.

Rather, Microsoft hasn't yet educated customers and developers at its expense. Microsoft will prime the pump by making the practical case for 64 bits that Apple, AMD, and AMD's adopters among systems makers don't want to spend the money to make. Education isn't their strong suit.

So the key that Microsoft holds is actually a piece of chalk. Once it starts its lectures, everyone else will add their notes in the margins of the 64-bit Windows lesson plan. The control that it exerts over the 64-bit value computing market wasn't stolen - it was given. n

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