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Windows 8 fondleslabs: Microsoft tip-toes through PC-makers' disaster

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2012 should be a landmark year for Microsoft. It will be the year 2011 should have been.

The reason is simple: the company’s play to take on tablet computing should finally hit the road.

Windows 8 will be delivered with an interface that liberates Microsoft’s operating system from the desktop prison of mouse and keyboard and opens it to touch. Windows 8 also ends Microsoft’s decades-old history of x86 monogamy by going with ARM.

Tablets were promised by Microsoft’s chief executive Steve Ballmer this year, when analysts demanded to know what his answer was to the flay-away iPad.

Closely on the heels of “what” was “when”. Ballmer choked at the 2010 analyst meeting and mumbled something about Intel’s Atom Oak Trail processors. Nothing really happened, though - nor could it, given Microsoft’s only operating system in circulation was Windows 7, which had not been built for touchy tablets.

The signs are emerging, however, that Microsoft will kick off the tablet a year early.

Microsoft has only said so far that a Windows 8 beta will hit in “early” 2012; Winrumours, citing unnamed sources, has put that at January. The Next Web claims February - with a RTM (release to manufacturers) of June - although this would be a long RTM period – RTM being the time between final code completion and that code being shipped to PC-makers and channel sellers. The Windows 7 RTM was three months – three months being something of the standard for Microsoft. Mary-Jo Foley, meanwhile, reckons it will happen "after the Consumer Electronics Show."

Next month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, will be critical in discerning whether it will be January, February or sometime later when we should expect Windows 8. CES is critical because it puts Microsoft, Windows 8 and Windows 8 tablets from PC and device manufacturers in the spotlight - for the consumption of gadget-makers, gadget-lovers and tech reporters. It was at CES in this year, after all, where Microsoft dropped the ARM bomb.

Already, it seems, the pieces are being put in place. Dell and Hewlett-Packard are getting over their mid-life crises: the former ending its brief but exciting affair with Google’s Android - the 7-inch Streak, hailed by the gadget press for its glassy coolness, is the latest Android tablet to be yanked by the Texas PC maker. Michael Dell’s company last month pretty much said that it would deliver a Windows 8 tablet. Competitor Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, is ditching its flirtation with WebOS, and killing the TouchPad, a device it has only been able to shift with hefty price cuts.

DigiTimes reports Samsung Electronics, Sony, Toshiba, Lenovo and Acer have been selected to build ARM-based tablets by the ARM partners that Microsoft is working with.

Shipping the technology is only half the story for Microsoft, however.

Knowing what to ship and then actually having a whole industry of applications for it - and content partners to buy it - is another matter.

If Dell and HP learned anything by blundering into the tablet minefield it was that you can’t just deliver another tablet and think it will sell because Apple proved the market.

The device can’t just look cool, like the Streak, and it can’t just offer the “open internet” by virtue of the fact that it’s capable of playing Flash content.

The iPad succeeded, in part, because it brought a new way of working with apps and with the internet, even if the version of the internet it brought was a walled-garden maintained only by Apple. It offered a compelling way to do existing or new things.

Compelling is relative: it could mean a way to read a book on the go and not lose your page, flipping through the digital-version of the Economist, fragging your best mate in a multi-player war-simulation game, crunching through your operation’s data in its Salesforce application, or watching Harry Potter or re-runs of Buffy.

The iPad is not alone, however, and other unexpected rivals are now branching into the form-factor of field of the tablet established by Apple: for example, Amazon with the Kindle and its Fire browser.

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