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MS trashes own 64-bit plans by killing Alpha NT

The company is hurting itself, and boosting Unix and Linux

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Analysis It may be some time before we learn who really killed NT for Alpha, but it's the stray bullets that are likely to have hit 64-bit NT - Alpha and Intel versions - that will turn out to have been the real news. All of the evidence points to Microsoft's high end OS strategy now descending into chaos and delays, with the Linux and Unix camps deriving the major benefits of the great screw-up. Rewind to Steve Ballmer's presentation at WinHEC earlier this year and you'll see why the last week's breakdown in relations between Compaq and Microsoft is so damaging for the 64-bit project (See report). Ballmer said then: "We will launch a 64-bit version of Windows based on the Windows 2000 code base as soon as we can after the shipment of Windows 2000." This obviously doesn't commit Microsoft to a date, but the reference to theWin2k codebase is important because it indicates a close relationship between the 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Compaq's disengagement from the 32-bit version is therefore a problem. The demo accompanying Ballmer's speech was particularly relevant in light of this. There was a quick look at 64-bit code running (or more properly, sitting) on a Merced emulator, then a swift switch to something more operationally 64-bit running SQL Server on Alpha. It was absolutely clear that despite Microsoft suggestions to the contrary, the Alpha implementation was way ahead of the IA-64 one, and this suggests, if Microsoft was trying to maintain linkage between 32-bit and 64-bit development, that the Alpha version of Win2k was a critical plank in the company's 64-bit plans. But Compaq pulled the plugs on that, while insisting it was still co-operating strongly with Microsoft on a 64-bit Alpha NT implementation. That lasted for very nearly 24 hours, until the Microsoft counter-strike. Effectively what Compaq was doing was trying to reduce development costs, while at the same time (probably) making Microsoft an offer it ought to have trouble refusing. As Enrico Pesatori pointedly said in the leaked memo that revealed Compaq was abandoning Win2k for Alpha, "Alpha is the development platform for 64-bit Windows NT." One could loosely translate this as meaning that Compaq reckoned that Alpha was absolutely critical to 64-bit NT development, and that it could therefore pull the plugs on the old DEC NT joint development deal while carrying on with 64-bit development, maybe even getting some licensing revenue out of Microsoft while doing so. The Microsoft riposte itself is interesting, as are the circumstances of its release. The company announced it was cancelling development of future versions of 32-bit and 64-bit NT for Alpha, but also said that "Compaq, as well as our other OEM partners, will continue to work with us to deliver a 64-bit version of Windows for our enterprise customers based on the IA64 architecture." So although the two, er, allies are busily firing off salvoes at one another, they're both professing to be continuing with cosy joint development arrangements; they're just talking about developing two different things. Microsoft however hadn't initially had a response to the shock news of Compaq pulling out of Alpha Win2k. It issued a prepared statement on Monday, but didn't post it as a press release. Instead, it published it in a lower profile area, here. But even after the statement was published Microsoft's position wasn't entirely clear, because although the statement quite clearly said development was being discontinued, a spokeswoman on Monday told one reporter that Microsoft was still developing 64-bit versions for Alpha and Intel internally. That gives you an indication of the speed of Microsoft's flip-flop. So what really happened? We can presume that the events of the week had been preceded by white-knuckle negotiations between the two companies. The Compaq move may have leaked early by accident or design, but in all probability Compaq wanted to force Microsoft to deal. Instead, Microsoft did something that might turn out to hurt it more than it hurts Compaq. By announcing it was pulling development completely, and suggesting that Compaq's strategy was to migrate users to Intel platforms it was to some extent undermining Alpha. But Compaq has been getting more enthusiastic about Linux and True64 on Alpha anyway, so the damage only applies to existing Alpha NT shops. If the Alpha platform really is vital to 64-bit NT development, Microsoft is probably also inflicting far greater damage on its own 64-bit development. Its immediate plans are for a stop-gap mixture of 32-bit and 64-bit code to support Merced, but Ballmer's promise of a 64-bit version based on the Win2k codebase is definitely receding. And other matters are likely to cause further interference. Microsoft is already planning a revised kernel for Win2k after the initial shipment, and the NT/Win2k rebuild codenamed Neptune is also being developed, which will mean more kernel hi-jinks. The company will at least attempt to sync the development of the 64-bit product into these, but at the same time will have to pick up where the Compaq engineers left off, and probably disentangle itself from any Compaq intellectual property issues that are left lying around. Microsoft co-development deals, of course, generally leave Microsoft holding the IP, but there's no doubt still scope for the whole thing to go expensively legal. Delays? We confidently predict that not much will get out of the door until yet another new Microsoft OS roadmap is issued at WinHEC 2000. ®

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