Microsoft Preps Windows XP Professional x64 Edition

More than 3 years ago, I attended a Microsoft technical preview event featuring the company's first 64-bit Windows products, which ran on Intel's then-fledgling Itanium (IA-64) chips. The preview was an early indication that the software giant was serious about moving into the 64-bit world. However, since that time, both the IA-64 platform and Microsoft's 64-bit offerings have been less than stellar sellers. Indeed, some critics have started referring to the Itanium as the "Itanic."

Microsoft's 64-bit product road map needed an overhaul as well. Its Itanium-based products are confusingly named, seemingly rarely updated, and out of sync with its 32-bit Windows versions. Back in 2001, Microsoft announced something called Windows XP 64-Bit Edition; this product would run on Itanium-based workstations but offered only a subset of the features found in XP Professional Edition (32-bit). It was revived in March 2003 for the Itanium 2, and there is currently a service pack release in beta testing, which will confusingly be titled Windows XP 64-Bit Edition Version 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1) when it ships next year at the same time as Windows Server 2003 SP1. No word yet on whether this release will include any of the 32-bit XP SP2 security features. I'm not hopeful. (If you think that naming scheme is confusing, consider Microsoft's IA-64 server versions. In 2001, the company shipped a product called Windows Advanced Server Limited Edition Version 2002, which was a pre-release version of Windows 2002 Advanced Server 64-bit Edition and was later rebranded as a version of Windows 2003.)

Despite a broad understanding that the computer industry was heading in a 64-bit direction, the technology had problems. One was Intel's decision--technically right though it might have been--to cocreate with HP a new 64-bit platform, the Itanium, which wouldn't be weighed down with the legacy problems of the 32-bit x86 platform. (I've discussed this topic in Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE, most recently in the February 24, 2004, commentary, "64-Bit Computing Gets More Interesting, More Complicated" at http://www.winnetmag.com/article/articleid/41854/41854.html .) But some of the blame must be placed with Microsoft as well: The company just hasn't done a good job of getting 64-bit products to market. It also hasn't done a good job of keeping its 64-bit products in sync with its 32-bit products.

In early 2005, the 64-bit world will change, thanks to Microsoft embracing a new 64-bit platform that AMD originally introduced. Now adopted by Intel as well, the new platform, previously called AMD64, is officially titled x64 because of its complete backward compatibility with the x86 line of processors. That means that x64-based systems, whether running microprocessors from Intel or AMD, will be able to run 32-bit x86-based OSs and applications at full speed. They'll also be able to run 64-bit OSs and applications alongside 32-bit applications, all at full speed. Technically, the x64 design might seem relatively unsophisticated compared with Intel's all-new Itanium platform, but the x64 chips clearly will be the volume leader within months. And by this time next year, x64-based systems will be mainstream products in both the server and desktop markets.

To meet the expected demand for these x64 chips, Microsoft is ramping up production of its next-generation x64-based OSs and servers. This week, I focus on the x64 desktop, which will be represented by a new Windows version called XP Professional x64 Edition (previously called Windows XP 64-Bit Edition for 64-Bit Extended Systems). In a future column, I'll look at Microsoft's x64 server products. Unlike the Itanium version of XP, XP Pro x64 will be functionally equivalent to the 32-bit version of XP Pro, with only minor differences. For example, XP Pro x64 won't support the 16-bit MS-DOS subsystem, so it won't run 16-bit DOS applications. It also won't support some legacy protocols, such as Apple Computer's AppleTalk and NetBEUI. Beyond that, everything you've come to expect from XP will be included, such as the Luna UI, the familiar bundled applications such as Windows Movie Maker and Windows Media Player (WMP), and all the security features from XP SP2. XP Pro x64 will also include all the technical capabilities from XP Pro SP2, such as hot-docking support, Bluetooth support, and the new wireless networking interface.

"We're positioning Windows XP Professional x64 Edition as an extension of the XP Professional product family," Brian Marr, product manager for Microsoft's Windows Client Group, told me last week. "You can expect to find just about everything in x64 that's available today in \[32-bit\] XP Pro. The goal is feature and architectural parity with XP Pro."

A beta version of XP Pro x64 is available today for free download from the Microsoft Web site (see URL below). Microsoft plans to ship a release candidate (RC) in late 2004, then release the product alongside Windows 2003 SP1 in the first half of 2005 (XP Pro x64 is based on the Windows 2003 SP1 codebase, Marr said). The product runs on top of any x64-based system, including those based on AMD Athlon 64 or Opteron chip, or Intel's latest 64-bit Xeon. The final version won't be sold at retail, but PC makers will bundle it with new systems. Customers who purchase x64 systems today will be able to use Microsoft's technology exchange program to deactivate their 32-bit OS and receive XP Pro x64 with a new product key when the final version ships next year. That means you can safely evaluate and purchase x64 desktops now, then move to the new OS when it ships next year.

Of course, even when XP Pro x64 does ship, you might want to hold off a bit. Though Marr told me that the driver set included with XP Pro x64 will rival that included with XP SP2, driver compatibility is sure to be a concern with the new system. To that end, Microsoft is working with its partners to ensure that device drivers are ported to the new OS, which can't use today's wellspring of 32-bit drivers. "Customers may see various out-of-the-box device support problems," he admitted. "Maybe your scanner works in 32-bit Windows, but not in x64, and there are no drivers on the scanner company's Web site. We've made a call to action to the device-driver community. We have the usual porting labs on campus. And OEMs and our biggest customers are working with partners to makes sure they're getting the right drivers out there."

Also, XP Pro x64 won't support upgrade installations, so you'll need to wipe out existing installations to install the new system, which might limit the product's appeal to early corporate adopters. But make no mistake, x64, not Itanium, is the future of 64-bit computing on the PC. As Marr said, "Look at it this way: XP \[Pro\] x64 is a major new release, but the Itanium release is only a service pack. We see XP Pro x64 as being a fantastic OS for our customers. It's reliable because it's based on the Windows Server 2003 codebase. It's more secure, thanks to the SP2 security features. It's functionally compatible with 32-bit XP. It's a fantastic OS."

Windows XP Professional x64 Edition Customer Preview Program http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/64bit/evaluation/upgrade.mspx

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