Microsoft unveils next-generation operating system

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – After years of delays, Microsoft Corp. on Monday released versions of its Windows operating system that can address vastly more memory and are designed for such heavy-duty tasks as rendering graphics and video.

The new products, Windows XP Professional x64 and Windows Server 2003 x64, operate on systems running 64-bit microprocessors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel Corp.

The product launch coincided with a preview of the long-delayed Windows upgrade code-named Longhorn and now expected in December 2006. Longhorn has been touted as the most significant update to the ubiquitous operating system since Windows 95 launched in 1995.

The new operating systems cost the same as their 32-bit counterparts, and are designed to run software written for computers with such processors as well as programs written for older chips.

They’ll produce the biggest performance gains in 64-bit systems with more than 4 gigabytes of memory. Most PCs today ship with 512 megabytes or less of random access memory, or RAM, and 4 GB is the upper limit for 32-bit systems. By comparison, the 64-bit desktop OS will initially support 128 gigabytes of RAM.

Business users are likely to initially be the biggest buyers of the 64-bit Windows operating systems. But ultimately, chip makers and Microsoft believe consumer-oriented programs such as video editors and games will become widely available.

“It’s a very big deal for us,” Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said during a speech Monday at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle. “We’re very excited about what [Advanced Micro Devices] and Intel have done.”

Touting the new software, Microsoft demonstrated programs used by movie studios to render complex computer graphics.

Projects that would have taken a month to render by 32-bit machines are completed in a matter of days with 64-bit systems.

But early adopters could run into trouble as they try to get their peripherals – printers, monitors and the like – to work with the new operating system. That’s because the drivers – software that controls hardware – need to be rewritten to work on 64-bit computers.

Intel, International Business Machines Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. were the first to launch 64-bit chips for high-end servers and workstations. But those used different instruction sets than the x86 standard that has been the foundation of PCs for decades.

In 2003, AMD launched 64-bit chips that extend the existing instruction set, meaning older programs don’t require a performance-sapping emulator to run.

Over the next two years, Intel has played catch-up, ultimately releasing its own 64-bit x86 chips.

While Microsoft pushed back the release date of specialized versions of Windows for the new AMD and Intel chips, Linux distributors jumped at the market opportunity.

“With this move to 64 bit, we think it’s going to be a watershed moment that few realize right now,” said Neil Charney, director of product management in Microsoft’s Windows group. “In a few years, we’ll look at this time and see really how big this move to 64-bit computing was – not just for the industry but for our daily lives.”

On Monday, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. announced business desktops and workstations that will run Microsoft’s 64-bit operating system.

Microsoft also is offering upgrades to owners of 64-bit computers who have purchased the 32-bit operating systems, charging $12 to cover shipping and handling.