Windows 8 Consumer Preview Kicks Off Microsoft's Next Big Push

Microsoft's next big product push officially begins with the release of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, a beta that millions will download.

The next step in Microsoft€™s march toward Windows 8€™s final release has arrived, with the upcoming operating system€™s €œConsumer Preview€ (a fancy term for beta) now available for download.

The Consumer Preview can be found in a special area on Microsoft€™s Website. The beta€™s 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 8€™s 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. €œIt 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. €œOne 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 8€™s "start" screen is composed of a set of colorful (and touchable) tiles linked to applications, with the €œold-style€ desktop interface accessible via a single click or finger tap.

If that alteration expands Windows 8€™s potential user base, it also opens it to new competitors in the form of Apple€™s 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 €œno-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. Microsoft€™s 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.

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