Beware of Office 2010's 64-bit Shortcomings

When Windows 7 hit the stands, most advanced users reveled in the fact that 64-bit Windows had finally come of age. In spite of a few driver and application compatibility problems, 64-bit Windows 7 promised faster speeds, access to more memory, improved security, and the ability to run a whole new crop of killer 64-bit applications.

Well, I have seen the future of 64-bit killer applications, and it ain't pretty.

[ Should you run 32-bit Windows 7 or 64-bit Windows 7? See InfoWorld Test Center's Windows 7 bitwise FAQ for the straight scoop on Win7 bittedness. ]

The retail version of Microsoft Office 2010 -- which will hit store shelves shortly -- includes both the 32-bit version and the 64-bit version of Microsoft's latest application suite. Those of you who get your bits through Software Assurance already have access to both the 32-bit and 64-bit flavors right now. Whether you love Office 2010 (see the Test Center's Top 10 Office 2010 features for business) or hate it, make sure you understand the problems people have encountered before you entrust a real, production machine to the 64-bit evil twin.

The OS requirements are quite exact. You can only install 64-bit Office 2010 on a sufficiently updated 64-bit Vista, Windows 7, or Windows Server 2008 machine. Those of you stuck with 64-bit XP or Server 2003 need not apply. And installing the 64-bit version from the retail DVD requires a bit of adroitness: Navigate to the DVD's \x64 folder and run setup.exe from there.

Potential benefits of the 64-bit version include Excel's ability to handle spreadsheets larger than 2GB (a real whopper of a spreadsheet), Microsoft Project's ability to accommodate similarly enormous projects, and native Data Execution Protection for potentially improved security.

So what's not to like? Plenty.

None of your old Office add-ins will work in the 64-bit world. They have to be rewritten and recompiled specifically for 64-bit Office 2010. In some cases, programming controls commonly used in the 32-bit world aren't even available in 64-bit. (Details are available in the MSDN Library article on compatibility.) Microsoft now offers conditional compilation support that differentiates between 32-bit and 64-bit, so sufficiently savvy programmers can write 32-bit and 64-bit ActiveX controls at the same time, but every single line of old code has to be examined and, in many cases, rewritten.

If you have Web applications that work with Office, they may fall over and play dead, too. Even Microsoft has had trouble with SharePoint co-existing with 64-bit Access. Syncing Outlook 64 with Windows mobile phones may not work as expected. OneNote integration isn't working right -- even at this late date, nobody's entirely sure what integration problems bedevil the evil twin.

Some of the supposed benefits of 64-bit may be illusory at best. For example, if you create a 64-bit Excel spreadsheet that's bigger than 2GB, anybody who needs to edit it -- or even look at it -- had better be running 64-bit as well.

Microsoft knows all about the 64-bit problems, although the 'Softies hardly trumpet the shortcomings in their marketing material. If you know where to look, you can find the whole story. For example, the official Microsoft Office 2010 Engineering blog puts it this way:

Few people remember, but Office 2003 had a 64-bit version. It failed so badly Microsoft passed on a 64-bit Office 2007.

Office 2010 64-bit has all of the hallmarks of a traditional Microsoft "version 2.0" product -- it works, but not like it should, and it doesn't play well with others. Wise folks will wait until version 3.

This article, "Word to the wise: Avoid 64-bit Office 2010," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

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