Microsoft on Wednesday invited journalists to a media event on Feb. 29 in Barcelona, during the World Mobile Congress, at which it will formally unveil the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Although the software is not officially being called a beta version, it's generally thought to be analogous to the "public beta 1" label that the software maker used during the pre-release period for past Windows launches.
If that's the case, then the final version of Windows 8 could be available in late 2012.
Microsoft released the public beta for Windows 7 in January 2009, and the final version in late October of that year. Similarly, Windows XP went into wide beta in early 2001 and hit retail in October of 2001.
The exception to this pattern is Windows Vista. Beta testing began on that problem-plagued OS in 2005, but it was not widely available until January of 2007. Vista, with its well-publicized development delays, appears to be an anomaly, however.
[ Will Windows 8 live up to its promises? For more on what we might expect from the new release, see 8 Features That Could Make Windows 8 Great. ]
Releasing Windows 8 for retail PCs and tablets in time for the crucial 2012 holiday season is key for Microsoft if the company wants to keep from falling even farther behind in the tablet market. Tablets were the hot seller of this past holiday season, and Microsoft was virtually absent from the market.
The company and its partners paid the price. While Apple and Google Android saw global tablet OS market shares of 57.6% and 39.1%, respectively, in the fourth quarter, according to Strategy Analytics, Microsoft's share was just 1.5%. Microsoft is counting on Windows 8 to change that.
For its interface, Windows 8 relies heavily on design elements taken from Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 environment, including Metro themes and Live Tiles--blocks of screen real estate that feed real-time updates from social networks, messaging, e-mail, and other services to the home screen.
Screen shots leaked on the Internet appear to show that Microsoft has gone so far as to eliminate the Start button, a familiar Windows navigation tool in past versions, and replace it with a swipeable area users can touch to bring up various menus.
Such a design is more tablet-friendly and could help Microsoft gain some ground in that market. Windows 8, at least one version of it, is also built to run on ARM-based chips from vendors like Qualcomm that are geared for tablets. Microsoft has not officially announced a release date for Windows 8.
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