The next step in Microsofts march toward Windows 8s final release has arrived, with the upcoming operating systems Consumer Preview (a fancy term for beta) now available for download.
The Consumer Preview can be found in a special area on Microsofts Website. The betas ISO files (for those who wish to install it on another partition or virtual machine) are also available. Microsoft has opened the Windows Store, making a variety of Metro-style apps available to download and try at no cost.
Windows 8s cloud-related features include cloud storage, the ability to roam all settings, and communicate with email and contacts from a Windows Phone smartphone or Windows PC. Microsoft is also providing Internet Explorer 10 Platform Preview 5, specifically tailored to Windows 8 devices.
Microsoft executives cautioned about bugs still present in the software. It represents a work in progress, and some things will change before the final release, Kent Walter, a member of the Windows Team, wrote in a Feb. 29 posting on The Windows Blog. One of the great things about widely releasing a preview like this is that it gives us a chance to get a lot of feedback through telemetry, forums and blog posts on where we can smooth out some of the rough edges.
Microsoft will reportedly release the final version of Windows 8 in late 2012, ahead of the crucial holiday buying season. In a bid to spread the Windows franchise onto tablets in addition to traditional PCs, Windows 8s "start" screen is composed of a set of colorful (and touchable) tiles linked to applications, with the old-style desktop interface accessible via a single click or finger tap.
If that alteration expands Windows 8s potential user base, it also opens it to new competitors in the form of Apples iPad and the host of Google Android tablets that, despite somewhat anemic sales, refuse to fade from the marketplace. For months, Microsoft executives have touted Windows 8 tablets ability to offer a no-compromise, desktop-strength experience as an advantage over these rivals.
If the example set by the Windows 7 beta in 2009 is any indication, millions will download and try the Windows 8 beta. Microsofts true challenge will come several months from now, when it needs to persuade those millions to shell out their hard-earned cash for the final version.