Sometimes true leaders must boldly proclaim a new direction to their followers, then walk off a cliff to prove their determination. For me, that explains...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Sometimes true leaders must boldly proclaim a new direction to their followers, then walk off a cliff to prove their determination.

For me, that explains Microsoft’s introduction of the awkwardly named Windows XP Professional x64 Edition.

This new version of Windows will almost certainly never attract more than the tiniest sliver of existing Windows users. And it will evaporate as soon as Microsoft delivers the next full Windows revamp, a long-overdue project code-named Longhorn, in the second half of 2006.

But I still think Microsoft is doing the right thing. Here’s why.

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Personal computing is undergoing a huge transformation from 32-bit to 64-bit processors. Most of today’s processors, the brains of a PC, work with data in 32-bit chunks. Each chunk is made up of binary digits, either a one or a zero, in strings that are 32 bits long. The new generation of 64-bit processors gobble up strings that are 64 bits long.

Advanced Micro Devices initiated the 64-bit transformation with its Athlon 64 processor, introduced in late 2003. Intel is just now catching up with several 64-bit Pentium chips. By late this year or early next year, almost all new PCs will come with 64-bit processors.

But 64-bit chips alone can’t do much. They need an operating system, and Windows XP, until now, has been strictly 32-bit.

There’s one more step. Programs running on 64-bit processors with 64-bit operating systems won’t sparkle unless they are redesigned.

Many software developers have been reluctant to invest the considerable time and effort required to create 64-bit applications. The release of Windows x64, as I’ll call it, is a clear signal from Microsoft that they need to get serious.

But there won’t be enough of these applications and drivers to create significant demand for a 64-bit operating system until Longhorn. So Windows x64 (, introduced April 25, ends up as little more than a starting shot.

To start on the Windows x64 path, you need a PC with a 64-bit processor running Windows XP Professional, not the more common Windows XP Home. If your 64-bit PC is running XP Home, you must first spend about $150 to $190 to upgrade to XP Pro. Microsoft will then send you the Windows x64 installation disc for just $12, to cover shipping.

Installing Windows x64 wipes out everything already on the hard drive, so you have to reinstall all your applications and data. And you’ll very likely find at least some of the drivers you need to connect your peripherals aren’t available. The best approach is to create a separate hard-drive partition for Windows x64 with a dual-boot option, so you can switch between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows.

After some struggles, I managed to install Windows x64 on a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion a810n computer, borrowed from HP, with an AMD Athlon 64 processor running at 2.4 gigahertz.

When the computer first launched in Windows x64, there was no sound. I had to go to the Web site of Realtek, the company that makes the sound chip inside the Pavilion a810n, and download a 64-bit driver. From that point on, Windows x64 looked and functioned exactly the same as 32-bit Windows XP.

If you’re shopping for a computer, it’s worth looking for a model with a 64-bit processor so you can upgrade to 64-bit Longhorn next year. But don’t stretch beyond your spending limit; Microsoft will also provide a 32-bit version of Longhorn.

Finally, a nod to the Macintosh. The current “Tiger” version of Apple’s Mac OS X is a 64-bit operating system when running on Macs with the new 64-bit G5 processor, but drops to a 32-bit operating system when running on older 32-bit G4 and G3 processors. The combination of Tiger and the G5 is delivering today as much or more as Longhorn is promising in 18 months.