Gates previews Win64

But 'technology preview' bodes ill for shipping it with Itanium...

Bill Gates yesterday announced a "technology preview" of 64-bit Windows, and unveiled the finished version of something Microsoft is taking great pains to describe as "Internet Explorer 5.5 technologies."

Microsoft's Web site was combed for references to IE that made it sound like it might be a standalone application a while back, but this is getting very silly; the Microsoft release on Bill's presentation manages three mentions of "Internet Explorer 5.5 technologies," one of vanilla Internet Explorer 5.5 (surely somebody goofed) and one of the "Internet Explorer 5.5 development platform." We figure the last one is terminologically OK, but ominous.

Timescale-wise, the "technology preview" of 64-bit is maybe a little ominous too. Technology preview is Microsoftspeak for alpha, or even pre-alpha, and although it means developers and hardware manufacturers will be able to get their hands on Win64 code in some kind of shape from now on, it seems reasonable to doubt Microsoft's ability to ship finished code in sync with the Itanium rollout.

Microsoft's new schedule for Whistler calls for shipping in second half 2001, and Whistler is due to go into beta any time now. So go figure on Win64's chances. In the past slippage on new operating systems hasn't made a great deal of difference to Microsoft, because there's been no competition and the hardware manufacturers have just had to wait, but it's different with Itanium, because there's Linux and a clutch of Unices poising themselves to jump in.

Despite the strenuous efforts not to position IE as an app, Gates' pitch did tend to peg it more as part of apps and tools than as part of the OS. Aside from being a development platform, it has "specific enhancements designed to provide developers with a more powerful Web development environment." It is "the best path forward for Web developers preparing for .NET as it offers the ability to develop reusable components for use across the Internet, providing the first steps toward creating rich services on the Web."

This sounds awfully like what Microsoft was worried Netscape might do to it, back at the start of the browser wars, doesn't it? The browser is the platform, it runs on multiple operating systems, so back in those days Netscape threatened to erase Microsoft's advantage of Windows being the "standard" platform for application development. Sure, Microsoft insists that IE is just part of the OS these days, but it's actually part of several operating systems, and on the Mac doesn't it look a teensie bit like an apps?

Mobile Internet Explorer is part of the stable, but is also rather like an app, given that Ericsson has designs on running it on Symbian's EPOC. Basically, we're starting to see the .NET strategy boil down to the .NET services platforms out there on the servers, and the browser, digital dashboard or whatever as the client platform.

Where's the OS? And who cares? This bizarre evolutionary process is probably taking place because it's logical, rather than because Microsoft is consciously preparing for a split into an apps and an OS company, but if the axe does fall one day, it'll be helpful. ®

Register helpful hint: Attention, Microsoft press office. We've noted with some dismay your recent tendency to refer to Microsoft's products as "raising the bar." This time you say IE 5.5 "further raises the bar for enabling developers..." Now, in puissance, when you raise the bar, you make the fence higher, so you can sort out which horse can jump best. Making the obstacles bigger for your users and developers is surely not what you mean?

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