Why this is not just another Windows release

Microsoft, Intel, AMD and hundreds of PC manufacturers spent last week discussing ways to get you to buy something you already...

Microsoft, Intel, AMD and hundreds of PC manufacturers spent last week discussing ways to get you to buy something you already have or probably do not need: a new PC or server running a new version of Windows. Yes, it was time for the annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle.

In terms of deliverables, the highlights are systems with dual-core microprocessors, which both Intel and AMD launched last week, plus four new 64-bit versions of Windows, which Microsoft released to manufacturing late last month.

Microsoft is also starting to wind up the hype machine behind Longhorn, the next version of Windows. All those attending WinHEC were given an updated "developer preview build" of Longhorn to take home and, in a small number of cases, use.

Some people may perhaps wonder why a 64-bit version of Windows is news: hasn't it been available for most of this century? True, but that was for the relatively unloved Intel Itanium processor. What Microsoft is shipping this week is the x64 version, which is x86-compatible. In other words, the new 64-bit Windows runs on AMD and Intel extended 64-bit chips, which also run standard 32-bit Windows applications.

Windows x64 comes in four editions, all built on the Windows Server 2003 code base. One is for desktop PCs and workstations, but this is probably a small market. Three are for servers: the Server 2003 standard, data centre, and enterprise editions. These will certainly be welcomed for their ability to support more than 4Gbytes of memory - up to 16Tbytes, in fact.

However, current hardware may not support this much memory, and use may also be constrained by a shortage of 64-bit drivers.

Microsoft plans to ship an x64 version of SQL Server this year, and versions of Exchange Server 12, Commerce Server 2006, Host Integration Server 2006 and Virtual Server next year.

It is hard to get excited about the preview release of Longhorn, which is likely to get an 18-month beta test starting this summer. However, Jim Allchin, Microsoft's group vice-president in charge of Longhorn, has divulged what could be an important feature. Apparently, Longhorn applications will run with the minimum level of privileges, unless explicitly granted more.

Today, Windows is usually run in "admin" or root mode, which is inherently less secure than running it in user mode.

However, Microsoft has been unwilling to push people into running their PCs in user mode because it breaks too many applications. The Longhorn compromise will not eliminate that problem, but it should help to reduce the adverse effects.

 Jack Schofield is computer editor at The Guardian

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