The 64-bit Question: Microsoft Bets on Both Camps

On April 24, 2002, Microsoft promised the world it would build a desktop version of Windows to run on 64-bit AMD processors. Nearly a year and a half later, Microsoft has delivered beta versions of both Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition designed to exploit the speedy AMD processor.

AMD made its biggest mark cloning Intel PC chips, making them cheaper and, oftentimes, faster. That worked fine in the 32-bit world, but when it came to Itanium, AMD broke with the past. AMD is going it alone, developing a chip incompatible with Itanium, but unlike Itanium, fully backwards compatible with Intel’s 32-bit legacy. The market will ultimately decide which of these approaches is most compelling.

This week AMD formally announced the Althon 64 processor, aimed at open-minded, power-hungry desktop jockeys, and a counterpart to its server-oriented Opteron offering announced this past April. Microsoft, a long-time Intel ally, tagged along on the press junket by announcing the beta of a full 64-bit build of Windows XP designed just for AMD processors, and promising a Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition rev for Opteron.

Microsoft has already built a 64-bit version of XP for Itanium desktops, and has also delivered Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition for Itanium, putting AMD into full catch-up mode.

Those that enjoy a little irony should chew on this. Most corporate desktops are used mainly for personal productivity and a whole lot of browsing, none of which fully taxes today’s state of the art 32-bit processors. So who has been pushing the PC envelope for the past decade, ushering in sound, CD-ROMs, and intense graphics? Home users in love with games, which is precisely the market initially targeted by AMD’s Althon 64 and Microsoft first AMD 64-bit OS incarnation.

PC historians will quickly note that businesses adopted each and every feature pioneered by the gamers, and so it is likely that 64-bit desktops will be the same, and lightning fast graphics and snappy computations could become the norm. But during the 16-bit to 32-bit transition, the newer machines ran most of the older software, softening the blow, just as AMD intended. Meanwhile market leader Intel is hoping that we cut off ties to the 32-bit world when we make the move to Itanium. On servers, which often run a single dedicated application, or even a portion of one, this can be a simple undertaking. Desktops, which often runs dozens of apps, are another matter.
AMD is taking a practical approach to next generation, trying to convince PC mavens to buy Althon 64-based computers, run today’s 32-bit applications, and then add the 64-bit goodies when they become available, which in the case of a production version of XP, is expected (or hoped for?) in the first half of next year.

Intel, on the other hand, is focused on helping OEMs build dual and multi-processor 64-bit workstations running Windows XP, and handling data intensive business tasks.

Unfortunately, AMD’s thinking runs a bit counter to the ‘latest-greatest’ approach taken by power users. True PC mavens are more likely to simply buy the latest machine, with all the bells and whistles (and Megahertz), when 64-bit software becomes commonly available, rather than loading up new state-of-the-art code on an older machine.

But the Althon announcement and Microsoft’s XP support certainly gets attention, and the backwards compatibility story undoubtedly piques interest. The question is, can AMD get top-tier PC makers to make and push AMD-powered 64 bit desktops over Intel-based machines? That is possible, but likely? Not.

And what about IT? IT pros should be happy that AMD pushes the envelope, cares about compatibility, and challenges Intel. But the market has been chewing on 64-bit possibilities for years already, and IT can wait another year or two until fully digesting the real technology.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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