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Microsoft Is Committed to 64 Bit…Right?

It's been a year and a month since I wiped clean my 64-bit computer's hard disk and installed Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. I'm fairly happy with it, as it not only does what XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) does, but it also incorporates a few Windows Server 2003 features into a desktop OS--for example, the new IPsec command-line support for Netsh. And because the processor and the OS are 64-bit, I get the benefit of hardware data execution prevention. So I love the thing. Mostly.

I haven't had as much trouble with x64 drivers as some folks have because I waited to make the leap until Acer posted 64-bit drivers for my Ferrari laptop. But now and then I do run into driver problems. I found a great wireless security Web cam from Axis Communications. But, to grab movies from it, I need a driver and--no surprise--there isn't one. The Ferrari's Bluetooth mouse doesn't work on x64, but it does on Windows Vista. Yes, drivers are a problem, but I'll get back to that.

Microsoft has taken the public stance that Vista will include the last 32-bit desktop OS that the company will ever offer. On the server platform, Microsoft folks have dubbed 32-bit hardware for Longhorn to mere "legacy hardware." This is an aggressively forward-looking stance, and 64-bit XP won't run any 16-bit applications at all. (Thank goodness for VMware.) So here's what confuses me: If 32-bit hardware is ready for history's dustbin, why doesn't Microsoft release 64-bit versions of its hardware-dependent utilities?

I used to love those Microsoft PowerToys for Windows XP (i.e., neat, little utilities that let XP strut its stuff). Like a cool extension to Windows Explorer that lets you look at Canon raw-format digital photos directly from Windows Explorer rather than having to crank up Canon's cranky Digital Photo Professional just to see a silly picture. But try to run the extension on 64-bit XP, and you're told that the application requires XP SP2 to run. Hmmm… that must mean the 32-bit version of XP.

Okay, somebody explain this to me, please. It's not like you need a driver to read a file and render it as an image on the screen. Several software vendors out there write very nice photo-processing software that can read Canon EOS 30D raw files with no problem at all on a 64-bit system. But the Microsoft folks can't do it. Nor is this the only PowerToy that won't run on 64-bit systems for no discernable reason except that someone flipped a few bits on the Setup program to keep the program from installing to anything but a 32-bit copy of XP. My guess is that Microsoft's intention was to keep the PowerToys from installing on Windows 2000 Server in a bid to chivvy people to move up to XP. Unfortunately, they shot at the Win2K Pro users and hit the 64-bit users.

And while I'm on the subject, why CAN'T you load 32-bit drivers on x64? When building the early 32-bit OSs (e.g., OS/2 2.0 and Windows 3.0), IBM and Microsoft supported 16-bit function calls on a 32-bit OS through a process called "thunking." I'm told that x64 does a kind of 64-bit-to-32-bit thunk so that it can run 32-bit applications. Why not support 32-bit "driver thunking?"

Now, the paranoid old man in me is reminded of something that I heard an IBM executive say in the mid 80s about software and hardware. "The purpose of software," he explained with a smile, "is to sell hardware." Could this seemingly studied partition of the 32-bit and 64-bit worlds just be a bid to promote hardware churn? Nah, that's just not possible. I think.

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