Move over, 32-bit Windows: 64-bit busts out

Microsoft would like you to believe people install 64-bit Windows because it's better, but the simple fact is that 64-bit has become popular because people want 4GB systems

Microsoft's Brandon LeBlanc reports in his Windows Team blog that 46 percent of all of the PCs running Windows 7 right now are using the 64-bit version.

That's a phenomenal adoption rate, and I figure it's entirely driven by cheap memory.

[ Check out Randall Kennedy's "32-bit Windows 7 or 64-bit Windows 7?" in InfoWorld's Test Center blog. ]

Here's how it works: Just a year ago, hardware manufacturers used to design mainstream machines around 2GB. After all, 2GB was -- and still is -- all the memory that most folks need. But with memory prices falling, bumping a system from 2GB up to 4GB right now adds a tiny amount to the build cost of a new PC: less than 5 percent, maybe much less. But to address 4GB you need 64-bit Windows.

The perceived value of 4GB of memory far exceeds the build cost. If you're looking at buying new PCs, and you can get a 4GB machine for 5 percent more than a 2GB machine, you're going to choose the bigger box, right? Even if you don't need the extra memory right now, it's cheap insurance -- and whoever reviews your purchase decision is going to think that you're a shrewd, forward-looking, and insightful shopper. And because 32-bit Windows can't handle 4GB, 64-bit Windows comes along for the ride.

Of course, that's not the way Microsoft spins it. Redmond would like you to drink the marketing Kool-Aid and believe that people install 64-bit Windows because it's better. Brandon let loose with this one: "If you are like me and are running tons of apps, you can see a real difference in performance" -- which should've made his nose grow a couple of inches longer. The simple fact is that 64-bit has become popular because people want 4GB systems.

There's absolutely no doubt that 64-bit Windows has problems, particularly with older peripherals and recalcitrant drivers. Peripheral manufacturers have very little financial incentive to make their older hardware work with 64-bit PCs. I've written here in Tech Watch about problems with the 64-bit version of Microsoft's own Office 2010.

While performance improvements with 64-bit rarely, if ever, reach the heights that manufacturers would have you believe, the security benefits are undeniable. Between the signed driver requirement and extra breathing room for ASLR memory base scrambling, 64-bit really is more secure than 32-bit. In spite of teething problems, Windows 7 64-bit clearly represents a step in the right direction.

Which makes it all the more imperative for software companies to get with the program. In light of 64-bit's 46-percent adoption rate, Adobe's failure to deliver a 64-bit Flash rates as a major embarrassment. Firefox hasn't gone 64-bit yet. Nor has Google's Chrome. And Microsoft's inability to produce a reliable 64-bit version of Office 2010 must rate as the most embarrassing 64-bit shortcoming anywhere.

All of the major software manufacturers are working furiously to get 64-bit versions out the door. With the market charging full speed ahead, you have to wonder why they missed the boat.

This article, "Move over, 32-bit Windows: 64-bit busts out," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

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