Intel representatives confirmed what they described as the "worst-kept secret in \[the industry\]" when they announced plans yesterday to add 64-bit extensions to the Pentium 4 and Xeon microprocessors. The move will give the chips 64-bit capabilities and bring them up to par with rival chips from AMD, which pioneered desktop-based 64-bit computing last year. The revelation represents a new experience for Intel, which has historically led the microprocessor industry, both financially and technically. But Intel says that consumer demand exists for 64-bit technology, as evidenced by Microsoft's 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP, which take advantage of the chips' advanced features while providing full backward compatibility with the applications today's PC users take for granted. However, the announcement raises concerns that the 64-bit Pentium 4 and Xeon chips will supplant Intel's Itanium line, a "pure" 64-bit microprocessor family designed for high-end servers and scientific workstations.
"What this suggests to AMD is that Intel is now following our leadership," Ben Williams, director of AMD's Server and Workstation Business Segment, said. Williams is obviously skipping over an obvious truth: By simply entering this market, Intel will likely quickly dominate it and overshadow AMD's sales by a wide margin. To get to that point, Intel will roll out what it calls 64-bit extension--first to its Xeon line of server and workstation chips by mid-year, then to the next-generation Pentium 4, which will ship in the second half of 2004. That schedule is far more aggressive than analysts had predicted.
For the short term, 64-bit chips will likely see the most traction on servers, on which today's 32-bit 4GB memory limit can be confining in certain circumstances. But Intel will quickly move the technology up and down its product line. Initially, Xeon products will target dual-processor systems; later, Pentium 4-based chips will target single- and dual-processor workstations, and Xeon systems, due in early 2005, will target quad-processor servers. On the software side, Microsoft is already shipping beta versions of Windows 2003 and XP that work on the new Intel systems and expects to finalize those products by the end of the year. By late 2004, various Linux distributors will also ship 64-bit variants of Linux for the new Intel systems.