XP64: failure or success?

There’s been some discussion recently as to whether Windows XP 64-bit Edition (XP64) has been a success or a crashing failure, with a number of commentators claiming that because so few copies have been installed it’s not living up to its promise. As a self-confessed Windows power junkie, I was girding my loins to leap to the defence of XP64 – in full-blown huff-and-puff mode – but then I quietly reminded myself that I don’t actually have a permanent XP64 installation myself. The reason for this omission is that, back when we were beta testing it, the whole experience became somewhat frustrating because we were waiting for 64-bit drivers to be delivered, and a half-working machine with essential functions such as onboard serial ATA (SATA) missing was somewhat annoying when all of your storage is on SATA. Even though there are more drivers available nowadays, I’ll confess that XP64 has just slipped from my primary focus.

However, it all came back to me with a jolt last week when I was looking up the Canon website for some drivers for a new all-in-one device, because the drivers supplied on the CD in the box were horribly buggy. Not only did I find some drivers that had been sorted out, but some 64-bit Windows versions too. If there are now 64-bit Windows drivers for all-in-one devices, the marketplace must be reaching a degree of maturity, and so 64-bit Windows should go back onto one of my test machines in a more permanent installation. Yet another resolution for the New Year.

XP64 was never going to be a major seller, and it hasn’t so far made it to the shrinkwrapping machines to become a product in your local superstore, which hasn’t helped. Even the early bullish efforts of SUSE to extract nearly £80 from me for SUSE 9 64-bit have been toned down in later releases. Now, its 64-bit version comes in the unified 32/64-bit package, and for a lower price too.

Will 2006 be the year of 64-bit computing? Yes, of course it will, although it will start off with power users like you and me and then trickle down into the mainstream. Vendors desperately need a breathing space in which to do device driver development work, and history shows this can’t be rushed. Heck, over 15 years ago, I was debugging Windows 3 drivers for the Texas Instruments TIGA family of graphics card processors and people barely understood how to write a driver then, especially one that did complex co-processing.

Today, things are much better: the Device Driver Kit from Microsoft is more comprehensive and no longer loaded with code samples that don’t work. There are performance and capability test harnesses available too, to shake out bad code early on. Plus, there’s a wide range of third-party development houses and consultancies to help progress the work. That’s why, as I’ve been looking around the websites of major vendors over the last week, it’s becoming clear that the 64-bit Windows driver development work has mostly now been completed. This is excellent news, because it means they can now start working hard on 32-bit and 64-bit versions of drivers for the forthcoming Vista OS platform. Attempting 64-bit and Vista at the same time from a standing start would have been quite a hard row to hoe.

If you have the 64-bit hardware and easy access to XP64 or Vista, I strongly suggest you start working on that platform if at all possible. There are many vendors out there who need your feedback, and experience shows that submitting a few well-thought-out bug reports will quickly get you in contact with the development teams within almost any size of company.

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