win8_logo.jpg Will eight be great? Now is your chance to find out as Microsoft unveils the consumer preview of its next operating system at Mobile World Congress 2012, highlighting how important the OS is to Microsoft's future in the mobile and tablet market.

Through the Window

If Windows 7 helped get Microsoft back on track on the desktop, Windows 8 is the company's weapon of choice for getting into the tablet market and generating some traction in smartphones. To say it is an important release is a massive, massive understatement.

So, today's announcement at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, opening up the servers for the general public to download the consumer preview (which has has some major changes over the developer previews) is the start of this undertaking. The event, which just wrapped, showed off the previously-seen array of ARM-powered tablets, sleek ultrabooks and other devices running the operating system.

With Apple's imminent launch of the iPad 3 and OS X Mountain Lion coming soon, Microsoft has to produce a clean, unified OS across any device that can access and enable users to work with any information in real time.Can Microsoft achieve that before the upstarts of iOS and Android start eating Windows business market share? 

New News From the Event

The event did bring up some new information, with Steve Sinofsky, whose rise to prominence on the back of Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 has seen him touted as the next CEO of the company,. leading the show. He led off with Microsoft's "no compromise" approach to Windows 8 and that users should expect that "all the services and software should go wherever you go on whatever product you are using."

A Windows 8 wallpaper shows the company does have a sense of humor

Microsoft staff showed off games (Cut the Rope), apps (iCookbook) running on Windows 8 tablets and social features, like pinning people important to you on the Start screen to see their updates more easily. There was also a neat, clean-looking new messaging app to keep in touch.

Laptops, Remember Them?

On laptops, the Ctrl+Alt+Del command to get out of lock mode is gone, now users can just press the Enter key. Mouse navigation of the Metro interface has been made as straightforward with swipes to move,the Start-button corner used to bring up menus while the upper left corner acts as a trigger to move between apps.

Moving between Metro and the traditional Windows desktop is instantaneous and any old-style apps you launch from Metro will appear on the traditional desktop. Lots of improvements have gone on in the background on the traditional windows, with better file copying, more relevant user information and other details. Most of which are discussed in great detail on the Windows 8 blog.

Using SkyDrive (more on that here), users can sync all their information across any Windows 8 device, with changes happening as soon as they log in. That, along with your personalized Start screen on all devices makes a unified Windows 8 environment a compelling one for any business or user.

Apps and Enterprise

The apps available in smart-looking Windows 8 Store will all be free to download over the course of the public trial, so we can try them all out. There's a massive app contest underway to get developers interested and lots of familiar and some all new titles are there to try.

One smart thing about apps is that they can pull information from each other and work together, without really knowing about each other, making all your apps potentially more useful as a whole than they are on devices where each app is alone and sand-boxed.

Another new feature, and a boon for IT departments, is the ability for enterprises to offer their staff a copy of Windows 8 along with the company's apps, user data, and settings on a USB drive rather than worry about giving them a whole new laptop. "When users insert their device into any existing Windows 7 or 8 compatible PC and restart it, they get their entire personal environment, and operate as a fully managed device."

So, Leap Day (except for Asia-Pacific where its already 1 March) is here and you can leap on board the Windows 8 preview at the Microsoft site. There's a neat installer app or you can download the 64-bit version is 3.3Gb and the 32-bit edition is a mere 2.5Gb in .ISO format. It is available in English, Japanese, Chinese, French and German. The only oddity I've seen is Microsoft still insists on those quaint 25 digit product codes, in this day and age, really?