Windows 8: Your Chance To Preview Coming Soon?

Microsoft appears to be getting set to launch a preview of the Windows 8 operating system that will allow average computer users to check out the forthcoming OS several months after IT pros got their first look.

It hasn’t announced a release date yet, but the software maker earlier this week was touting the Windows 8 Consumer Preview with a page on its Bing search engine that was live for several days. The page, since removed, displayed a swimming betta fish—a nod to the fact that the OS is still in the development phase–as well as links to Windows 8 resources for users and developers.

Most of the links, including one for the “Windows 8 Consumer Preview,” did not appear to be functioning. Likewise for a link to a “Windows Store,” where consumers will presumably be able to download apps for Windows 8 PCs and tablets in a manner similar to how iPhone and iPad users buy software from Apple’s App Store. Other links on the page connected to Microsoft’s online Dev Center, where users can learn to write Metro-style apps for Windows 8.

In September, Microsoft released the Windows 8 Developer Preview along with tools that programmers can use to build apps and get familiar with Windows 8, which represents the most fundamental redesign of the OS since the debut of Windows 95.

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.

Newly leaked screenshots 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 Microsoft has made little secret of the fact that it’s counting on Windows 8to make it a player in the tablet market, which is dominated by Apple and Google-powered devices. Still, the strategy isn’t without its downsides. In drastically overhauling the OS, Microsoft risks alienating users that have grown used to the familiar Windows desktop over the years.

“It’s a huge risk in a market that doesn’t always like major changes,” said Rob Enderle, principal consultant at Enderle Group. “This is going to require a massive promotional effort and we haven’t seen any signs of that yet.” Enderle noted that the computing industry landscape was significantly less competitive when Microsoft last overhauled Windows with Windows 95, which brought a number of new graphical elements to the platform. “By that time Apple was weak and there were really no alternate platforms.”

The move, however, could make Windows more appealing to consumers who have already jumped on the tablet bandwagon. A recent survey by market research firm iYogi found that 85% of existing tablet users would prefer a desktop OS that mirrors their tablet experience. “Windows 8 provides a real alternative to the iPad for PC users looking for a seamless interface and ease of integration,” said iYogi marketing president Vishal Dhar.

iYogi’s survey also found that 69% of PC users would prefer a tablet that mimics their desktop experience. Microsoft has yet to announce a formal ship date for Windows 8, though many analysts expect it may show up in devices in time for the 2012 holiday season.