The venue for the first showing of a near complete version of Windows 2000 for Intel's IA-64 hardware said a lot more about the product than Bill Gates' accompanying speech.
While promising that the transition to 64bit will be "much easier" than the move from 16bit to 32bit, Gates chose to preach to the converted and made his pitch to an audience of software developers. The delegates at this month's Microsoft Professional Developers' Conference in Florida like to be at the cutting edge, but are not actually the people who will have to buy or deploy 64bit Windows.
"Only a maniac would want to be first to deploy crucial applications on 64bit technology. If you're going to use this kind of thing in anger, it has to be totally watertight," says Matt Hanrahan, an analyst at Bloor Research.
He believes that the only big organisations likely to be rushing for early editions of 64bit Windows will be those wanting to install it in a laboratory for testing.
Many of the problems are down to timing. Microsoft's plans have been undermined by its failure to synchronise shipment of its 64-bit baby with the most crucial part of the jigsaw, Intel's IA-64 chip.
The company will initially release two flavours of 64bit Windows, one for servers and one for workstations, which will be launched simultaneously following the shipment of the first 64bit Intel-based machines later this year.
It has also generously pre-announced details of the next two versions of Windows 2000, namely Whistler, due out in the second half of next year, and Blackcomb, which is expected a year later.
But the Unix community is cock-a-hoop that almost every flavour of Unix will steal a march on Windows by being available on IA-64 before it. IBM's Monterey/64 will be pretty much ready when Intel launches the first member of the IA-64 family, Itanium, later this summer. And, doubtless to the particular chagrin of Gates, Linux also looks like beating Windows to 64-bit status.
Some analysts argue that a full and final version of 64bit Windows might not even be available for as much as six months after the processor arrives.
Hobbled by hardware
In an ironic reversal of the early days of Windows application development, Microsoft has been hobbled by not having access to fully developed 64bit hardware on which to test its prototypes. IBM, Sun Microsystems and others, however, have their own non-Intel 64bit machines to work with, and so have had operating systems to match for some time.
In its defence, Microsoft cites the forthcoming Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, an extension of 32bit Windows 2000, as evidence that it is already highly active in the enterprise space.
The firm claims that Datacenter, now well overdue but due to ship imminently, is a more-than-credible offering for demanding applications such as ecommerce, datamining and online transaction processing.
The software giant argues that the offering will provide all of the functionality currently found in Windows 2000 Advanced Server, but will also include 64Gb of memory, support for 32 processors, four-node clustering, process control and network load balancing.
Microsoft's eagerness to emphasise the strengths of Datacenter suggests that it is not expecting a stampede for early copies of 64bit Windows.
Analysts have certainly warned that no-one should hold their breath waiting for a headlong rush of potential users.
Too early to tell
Hanrahan believes that it is still much too early to declare who will be the winners and losers in the 64bit space, and adds that Microsoft has as much chance of getting it right or wrong as anyone else.
Many analysts are describing the early rush by vendors to produce operating systems that work with Itanium as a phoney war anyway.
"For most people, Intel's McKinley will be the first true 64bit architecture, but that's not happening until the latter half of 2001. Then the race between Microsoft and Linux will really start," says Clive Longbottom, an analyst at Strategy Partners.
Early adopters who feel compelled to move to Itanium - which they will not be able to swap out for follow-on chips - will find few system manufacturers in a hurry to develop products for them. And those systems that do appear will not be cost-competitive against rival systems for even longer.
In the same way, application developers are unlikely to bust a gut to produce the goods for early versions of 64bit Windows. Indeed, analyst firm Gartner does not foresee that 64bit Windows will find a significant market presence until 2003.
Users would also be unwise to sit out the dance, however. As Hanrahan says: "The power that 64bit technology delivers is something nobody can afford to ignore."
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