The transition from 32bit to 64bit desktop computers will happen dramatically faster than most experts have predicted, with many users switching within the next two years, according to one industry analyst.

"The switch to 64bit desktops will happen very quickly," says Steve Kleynhans, vice president of technology research services at the firm Meta Group. He expects the majority of users to make the move to 64bit desktops by 2006, he told industry insiders during Microsoft's WinHEC conference in Seattle this week.

PCs equipped with a 64bit processor and operating system can address dramatically more memory than today's PCs, offering the potential for huge increases in computational power.

The move to 64bit computing on the server side is already under way, and Kleynhans predicts a "complete transition to 64bit servers by mid-2005."

Most industry analysts have predicted a much slower conversion to 64bits on the desktop. Martin Reynolds, a Dataquest analyst, recently predicted it could take four years or more for 64bit desktops to become mainstream.

But Kleynhans says he's bullish on the prospect of a speedy transition since AMD is already shipping 64-bit-ready desktop chips and Intel is poised to do so as well. "The world will move to 64 bits because soon everyone will have 64bit processors," he says.

A speedy transition to 64bits seems to be something Microsoft also favors. In his keynote address Tuesday, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates called on hardware vendors to begin writing new drivers now so they'll be ready for future 64bit versions of Windows.

While Microsoft has repeatedly delayed the release of its first 64bit version of Windows XP for the desktop, the company says it is now on target to deliver the operating system later this year. The next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn and due in 2006, will offer native 64bit capabilities.

In the meantime the industry is setting the stage for a fast changeover, according to Gates.

"Between now and the end of 2005 we'll go from very few 64bit chips to virtually 100 percent of what AMD ships and most of what Intel ships," he said.

Since both companies have figured out how to economically add 64bit extensions to chips that maintain high performance on today's 32bit applications, there's no penalty to making today's desktops ready for the transition.

Gates noted that previous transitions were sometimes "messy," but predicted the move from 32 to 64bits will be dramatically easier. "This will be a smoother transition than those that came before, and this will happen faster, too," he said.

AMD has clearly led the charge toward 64bit computing on the desktop with its popular Athlon 64 and Athlon 64 FX processors. But Meta Group's Kleynhans says it is wrong to assume that Intel's recent decision to announce its own 64bit extended processors was a kneejerk response to AMD's success.

"Intel didn't just decide to add 64bit extensions," he says. The company has clearly been working on its own chips for some time, but AMD's success with its desktop and server parts forced Intel to show its hand sooner than executives probably would have liked.

"Intel doesn't like to get ahead of the whole ecosystem," Kleynhans says, noting that the chip giant prefers to test and retest its products long before it introduces them "Intel probably would have preferred to wait so it could continue validation testing of its 64bit extended systems."

Instead, vendors began to embrace AMD's products and Intel had to announce its first 64bit extended processors to counter, he says. And it's only a matter of time before the company announces its first 64bit ready Pentium 4, he says.

"It doesn't make sense for Intel to wait now," he says. "They put a stake in the ground and they will move quickly because it doesn't make sense to let AMD continue to make noise."

While he's confident the 64bit transition is coming, Kleynhans isn't convinced there's a true need for all the computing power on the desktop just yet. While there are numerous server applications that can take advantage of all that memory, he says he's seen very few desktop programs that can.