The next layer, and the 64-bit tipping point.


2008 is a hard deadline for the adoption of 64-bit computing, according to Eric S. Raymond (author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar). He made this claim in 2006 based on historical trends of memory use by personal computers. As far as I know, there is no reason why this could not be come to pass – next year you will be buying a 64-bit processor and more than 4GB of RAM in your personal computer.

It’s never been easy to predict in advance what triggers the need for this extra horsepower, but in the past it has been the addition of layers of software underneath whatever programming language that software developers were using. If you’re writing in assembler for a particular processor then you can squeeze a lot of functionality and performance into quite a small space, but your application won’t run on anybody else’s processor and won’t be able to use a wide range of peripherals. When you start to abstract those incompatibilities away, that’s what starts to slow down your application and make it consume lots of memory.

What’s the next layer of abstraction that will push us over into the 64-bit world? Joel Spolsky thinks he has identified it: in his Strategy Letter VI he writes about a hypothetical application platform that will let you forget about the incompatibilities between different browsers’ interpretation of Cascading Style Sheets and their different object models. Moreover it will let you forget about different ways of publishing your online status and journal (Facebook or Twitter? Who cares? I publish to all of them).

For me, it’s one of those eye-opening articles that makes the world seem like a slightly different place. GMail is today’s Wordperfect? Obvious when you think about it.

And while you’re not paying attention, everybody starts writing NewSDK apps, and they’re really good, and suddenly businesses ONLY want NewSDK apps, and all those old-school Plain Ajax apps look pathetic and won’t cut and paste and mash and sync and play drums nicely with one another. And Gmail becomes a legacy. The WordPerfect of Email. And you’ll tell your children how excited you were to get 2GB to store email, and they’ll laugh at you. Their nail polish has more than 2GB.

Somebody must be working on this application platform, surely? Any ideas who? And when can I play with it?

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3 Responses to “The next layer, and the 64-bit tipping point.”


  1. 1 Andrew Yeomans September 20, 2007 at 14:48

    (I wasn’t the first with the revised BillG quote but it has surprisingly few Google hits.)

    Actually you can in theory double the addressable memory to 8GB using separate instruction and data spaces. PDP-11s did this to go from 16-bit to 17-bit. And it potentially aids security by separating the two, a buffer overflow would not overwrite code.

    In addition, the memory management could handle a larger physical address space than a single process could address. But it’s probably cleaner to just go to 64 bits.

  2. 2 Dominic Sayers September 20, 2007 at 13:17

    You sound like Bill Gates in 1981 :-)

    I think the requirement is for greater than 4GB of RAM rather than the horsepower of a 64-bit processor. For readers with less technical awareness than Andrew, 4GB is the maximum addressable memory for a 32-bit processor. If you need more than 4GB you need a 64-bit processor.

  3. 3 Andrew Yeomans September 20, 2007 at 09:36

    So optimistic that you get something for your 64 bits. My bet is you need the extra power to run all that 64-bit security software and have your machine running as fast as that old DOS system :-)

    Anyway, 64-bits should be enough for anyone.


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