There have been many great advances in desktop computing over the years; and some truly great ones, that fail miserably. The Apple Newton, IBM PC Jr, RAMBUS Memory, 64-bit implementations of software on desktop PCs come to mind – OK well, maybe not the PC Jr., but back on point. 64-bit processors, their respective OSes and more specifically the applications that are available for them, continue to make one ponder, “When will 64-bit computing become a reality?”


Alpha Chip


In that question lies the problem. 64-bit environments are a reality now, and have been for over a decade; we just don’t really expect them to be, so as businesses, consumers, enthusiasts and the industry as a whole, we propagate a self fulfilling prophecy that the technology is not ready for prime time.


And before I get barraged with, “Well, Actually….” responses about how you use 64-bit Oracle or other select server applications, this diatribe is focused primarily on the desktop, though an argument can be made about the sad state of adoption on the server side as well (I’ll just save that for another time.)   


Dispelling Myths


Contrary to all the industry press, bloggings, and snappy AMD/Intel ads and press-releases; 64-bit platforms have been available for some time. I little history lesson is in order.


My first experience with a true 64-bit box was in the early 90’s, the DEC Alpha AXP. Ah, Digital Equipment Corporation, I get a little teary eyed at the thought. Great company, superb engineering, solid performing systems and terrible marketing – so it should be no surprise that many of you might not even recall the AXP systems.  At 150 Megahertz the AXP was blisteringly faster than the flagship Intel chip of the day, you might remember that one a little better, this new thing called “Pentium”, it topped out at 90 MHz. And for an OS, you could run Windows NT (the now defunct Alpha version), OpenVMS, or DEC’s Tru64Unix. While most of these machines are now collecting dust in IT bone yards, a few continue to find life with 64-bit Linux distros for the Alpha.


Sun Ultra Sparc


The next 64-bit offering to grace the stage, Sun Microsystems Ultra Sparc. What’s that? You don’t remember who Sun is? That’s ok they seam to have a problem with their identity too, but back in the day, the 90s, Solaris was king of the go-go Unix powered internet bubble. The Ultra line of chips was to power 64-bit Solaris running from the largest datacenter on down to the “workstation” on your desktop. Heck, there were even a few OEMs who engineered notebooks with these. Still not ringing a bell? Humm, well that explains a lot about Sun’s current dwindling market share.


So if both of these have left you scratching your head surely you will recall the first major 64-bit offering from Intel.  Merced, or it’s current brand name – Itanium. Intel started hyping the crap out of this dog before the turn of the century (oh its so weird to use that expression to describe the 1999 – 2000 – 2001 time period.)  In case you missed it, we where all going to stop buying Pentiums, as they were scheduled to be discontinued shortly after the Itaniums started shipping. After all, why would anyone want a 32-bit processor when they could have a new 64-bit one running at a slower Megahertz that was both pin and code incompatible with the x86 architecture. Not so much.


Then there was Apple. Surely Apple with all their technical prowess, engineering experience, and marketing appeal could make this 64-bit thing work! Well they did get the science part right – partly. It was the Macintosh G5, billed as the worlds fastest micro computer and 64-bit through and through. And at it’s core, the G5 chip and memory interconnects have 64-bit data paths; but OSX, while certainly capable of running in a pure 64-bit mode, opted to go with only 64-bit extensions for large memory addressing. But never mind, it turns out that the PowerPC chips that were so fast, got replaced by those 32-bit Intel chips; those ones that were sure to be phased out by 2003, what where those called… oh yea Pentium I think it was. Been so long since any of us have seen one of those.


 G5 The Fastest?

Software –  cause I still haven’t found what I’m looking for..


Where are the Killer 64-bit apps? There lies the crux of the whole thing. In fact one could ask where are the sorta killer 64-bit apps, or where are the simply ok-but-working 64-bit apps.


In each of the previous 64-bit mis-steps, chronicled above, there was not the single quintessential force required to drive adoption, good software. And here is the sad part, since those ill-fated attempts of the 90’s - what has changed? Not a heck of a lot.


You think I’m exaggerating? AMD has offered its Opteron and Athlon 64-bit architectures for a couple of years now – how many of you are running the AMD64 version of World of Warcraft?  Oh that’s right, that product does not exist.


What AMD is not mainstream enough, too fringe – let’s look at Intel. Itanium, 64-Bit Xeon and Core based systems have been in production even longer, How many people do you see running Half Life 2 for XP Pro x64 version?


Frankly I don’t know what it’s going to take for 64-bit solutions to take hold! I’ve been hearing the rhetoric about how life changing the 64-bit apps are going to be, for over a decade now, and it’s just not happening. Its time the industry either gives up on 64-bit on the desktop or build something that makes users value this fancy “new” technology.