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Bill Gates Discusses 64-Bit Windows, Longhorn Transitions

Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates will announce availability of four new 64-bit versions of the Windows operating system at the company's WinHEC conference for hardware engineers, which begins April 25 in Seattle. The new Windows x64 will allow customers to run existing 32-bit applications and newer 64-bit application on the same PCs or servers, providing a bridge between Microsoft's 32-bit software environment of the past decade and its emerging 64-bit software environment for the future. On April 20, Gates sat down with InformationWeek editor in chief Stephanie Stahl and senior editor at large John Foley on Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus to discuss the new 64-bit product line and how it compares with the next-generation Longhorn operating system.

InformationWeek: You're about to announce availability of Windows x64. What's the business case for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 x64? Who should get it and why?

Gates: I think the transition to 64-bit is the biggest thing happening in the computing space, and in some ways, the reason it's not getting this huge attention is because at a technical level, the way the transition's being handled, this is going to be the simplest address-space transition ever. And yet, it's the biggest address space transition ever. Going from 32 [bit] to 64 [bit] is more than we've ever done. We haven't had an address space transition since 1986. Thirty-two bit's been enough, even at the server level, 4 Gig of physical [memory] felt like enough.

For the last five or six years, people have been feeling the pressure. Not everyone, not the general purpose desktop, but a high percentage of servers and a high percentage of high-demand desktops -- financial analysis, scientific computing -- the kinds of things that were the last to flip over from Unix to Windows, the super high-end thing, where even for a time people had two machines on the desktop. They wanted Office, yet there was some application that Unix had that they didn't have. We got this nice period where at the desktop level and for most server [workloads] the standard hardware was good enough for everything. Now, the 64-bit thing, it's quite dramatic on the server because the cost of memory has come down so that putting huge amounts of physical memory on a server is economic and the demand for performance you want these Web sites to be very fast. The size of the material we have out there, whether it's the amount of text, images, click databases, everything has just expanded dramatically, so 64-bit is a huge thing and it gives us pretty unbelievable headroom.

The range of applications that benefit from 64-bit are incredible, so to go back to your question in a very direct sense, as people are rolling out new applications, as they're looking at any application they want to up the performance on, moving to 64-bit is one of the magical ways. You can simplify the application and have it be very high performance. After all, the 64-bit hardware isn't premium priced. You want to buy an Intel-based server, an AMD-based server, these things are going to be priced just the same as they were as 32-bit systems. That's pretty unbelievable. We didn't have that in the past. Many elements of the system have been sitting waiting to be enabled for 64-bit -- we've had 64-bit file system stuff for over a decade. Windows actually had that before most versions of Unix. We've had 64-bit development tools for developers for quite some time now. Recompiling your code isn't that hard. There's a little bit of a challenge to get all of the device drivers. You can mix 64-bit apps and 32-bit apps, but when you have a 64-bit operating system, you need 64-bit device drivers. During the next 12 months, there will be a lot of focus on that. I don't have any concern about it; it's just that we need to keep the message very strong that we need all those device drivers.

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