Microsoft has let slip that it will be releasing a 64-bit version of its Windows 10 Mobile operating system. So why does this matter? What does this mean for mobile device users? Read on to find out.
Back in 2013, Apple touted that its A7 CPU in the iPhone 5s supported 64-bit, an architecture for processors that is now commonplace on desktop and laptop computers. They couldn't stop patting themselves on the back for it and claimed a 64-bit chip could complete tasks twice as fast as its poor 32-bit cousin. But just because 64-bit has double the 'bits' than 32-bit doesn't necessarily mean you'll get double the performance.
At the time, pundits noted that while a 64-bit phone would have improved performance, it's not as significant as Apple was claiming. The problem with 32-bit processors was that it could only capitalise on 4GB of RAM, making it comparably slower than 64-bit processors which can address up to 16 exabytes of memory. For computers, that makes a world of difference, but the iPhone 5s only had 1GB of RAM, so it couldn't really take full advantage of the 64-bit processor anyway.
In short, handsets that have under 4GB of RAM won't see all that much difference between a 32-bit and 64-bit CPU. There are other factors at play as well. If the operating system doesn't support 64-bit, the processor won't realise its full potential either.
Flash forward to 2016, there are now a number of vendors selling 64-bit mobile devices. Samsung, Oppo, and LG are just a few companies that have launch 64-bit phones recently. Google's Android mobile operating system now supports this computer architecture. The range is still limited but there's no doubt that 64-bit mobiles are becoming mainstream. And yet Microsoft, arguably the pioneers of 64-bit computing, still hasn't launched a 64-bit mobile operating system. Windows 10 Mobile, which was released last month and is used on the vendor's flagship Lumia range, is a 32-bit operating system.
Mind you, the latest Lumia handsets have a maximum of 3GB of RAM, but given that Microsoft has invested heavily in resuscitating its Mobile division, sticking with the 32-bit design seems short-sighted. But over the weekend, Microsoft subtly signaled that it will soon bring the 64-bit architecture to Windows 10 Mobile phones in an article honouring one of the industry veterans who brought 64-bit computing to the fore, Dave Cutler:
"In March 2005, he completed one of his 'most gratifying pieces of work' at Microsoft when, partnering with AMD, he helped develop the AMD64 architecture (64-bit extensions to the 32-bit x86 architecture) and led the effort to ship the first two x64 64-bit Windows systems (workstation and server). At the time, some questioned why Microsoft developed a 64-bit system; today most computers are 64-bit systems and even our phones will soon have a 64-bit operating system."
With its Universal Windows Platofrm, Microsoft is a strong proponent of working seamlessly across any device. It was one of the major drawcards of Windows 10 Mobile, which touts the Continuum feature that allows users to use their mobile device as a fully-fledged PC. A 64-bit operating system with the right hardware would be a key part in facilitating a better mobile-to-PC experience.
There has also been rumours of Microsoft working on a Surface Phone and there is now speculation that it will be a full-on 64-bit device.
If we take a step back from Microsoft's 64-bit mobile ambitions and look at the broader picture, this news is another reminder for developers to start shipping their apps for the 64-bit architecture. While a 32-bit app is likely to experience improved performance on a 64-bit device, you'll get an even bigger boost when the app is optimised for 64-bit.
All this is good news for us mobile device users. 64-bit computing brings a whole host of benefits to mobile devices beyond just running programs and apps faster. It can bring added security functions as well which is always welcome given that cybercriminals are focusing fire on smartphones. It's an exciting time for mobile computing and it'd be exciting to see what's comes out from this space in the coming months.