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Microsoft's substitution of DOS with Windows was an example to Intel of what they should have been doing with x86 and Itanium.

Microsoft's initial versions of Windows (up to Windows 3.11) were essentially a crude Windowing system thrown on top of DOS. After that, MS had two product streams, the high-end NT 3.51 and 4.x (based on VMS) and the low-end Windows 95 & 98. Over time, more of the high-end features made their way into the low-end products, until the Windows we have today is genetically descended from NT 3.51 but also has DOS-compatibility.

The important thing, which Microsoft understood intimately, was that at all times their users had the perception that upgrading to the latest version of Windows was a risk-free exercise. Or maybe to put it better, it was riskier staying with the 'old' version, when the new version would give them everything they had before, plus a few new goodies.

In the same way, the initial versions of Itanium should have been fully backwards compatible with x86. x86 could have been subsequently quietly put to sleep as new chips came out by enhancing Itanium's 64 bit features with future releases but only keeping the x86 features in 'maintenance mode'. Eventually the cost of both pure x86 chips and x86-backwards compatible IA-64 chips could have been made the same, giving consumers the benefits of the new architecture for 'free'. When the majority of the market had made the switch, the x86 compatibility could have been dropped, perhaps replaced by software emulation a la the DOS-compatibility in Windows.

It will be interesting to see if even mighty Intel will be allowed another try to get this right. History says that when companies, big or small, make this kind of a stumble, they lose market leadership for good. I don't think that Intel are in danger of going out of business or anything like that, but I do think their market leadership is hanging by a thread.

Phil Monk
Adelaide - Australia
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