Microsoft's 64-bit netbook conundrum

The success of low-cost, 32-bit netbooks may retard the evolution of Windows just as users were finally accepting a 64-bit OS

Good news for fans of technological progress: Windows 7 is on track to become the first Microsoft desktop OS that's as popular in its 64-bit (x64) format as it is in the legacy 32-bit (x86) format that has dominated PCs for nearly two decades. A recent survey by the folks behind the Steam online gaming network shows that, at least among gaming enthusiasts, 64-bit is now the more popular way to go, with the majority of gamers running the x64 variants of Vista or Windows 7.

Such a conclusion jibes with my own observations based on data collected by the exo.performance.network. According to records drawn from its 23,000-strong user base, more than half of Windows 7 PCs are running the 64-bit version. This is remarkable in that the exo.performance.network user base consists primarily of enterprise IT users, not hardcore gamers like Steam's users. Moreover, it represents a significant uptick in 64-bit use versus that in Windows 7's immediate predecessor, Windows Vista. Of the thousands of Vista machines monitored by the network, less than one in five are running the x64 edition.

[ Learn how to choose between 32-bit Windows 7 and 64-bit Windows 7. | Get the analysis and insights that only Randall C. Kennedy can provide on PC tech in InfoWorld's Enterprise Desktop blog. | Download our free Windows performance-monitoring tool. ]

Clearly, Windows 7's high 64-bit adoption rate signals the readiness of both consumers and IT organizations to embrace a post-32-bit future. In fact, it's tempting to conclude that, given these trends, Windows 7 is likely the last version of Microsoft's desktop OS to ship with a 32-bit flavor. However, a potential stumbling block looms on the horizon in the form of the lowly netbook.

These ultraportables have dominated PC sales for the past 18 months, and the public's appetite for such low-cost computing devices shows no sign of abating. All of which is great from a value-for-money standpoint -- you can get a highly functional, mobile PC for a fraction of the cost of a traditional desktop or laptop -- but it's not so hot a prospect when you consider the netbooks' impact on the Windows code base.

Netbooks are largely based on Intel's Atom CPU architecture, which only recently gained x64-support, and even then only in the very newest netbook designs based on the company's "Pine Trail" platform (many vendors continue to sell systems based on the older, 32-bit-only "Diamondville" platform).

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