Microsoft may launch the consumer preview (read: "open beta") of Windows on February 29th.
Members of the press recently received an invitation to a special Windows 8 customer preview event in Barcelona as part of the Mobile World Congress trade show. The event is on the 29th, and it is assumed that the Customer Preview will be made available to the public in conjunction with it.
To be clear, Microsoft has confirmed with us that it has not announced the launch of the consumer preview. The only thing communicated from Microsoft is an invitation to a press event. Still, the safe money is on the preview launching at the same time, or at least very close, to the Barcelona event.
Note the precise nomenclature here. It is a "consumer preview", rather than a "public beta". Perhaps the shift from "public beta" to "consumer preview" is a function of a transition in the role of the programme.
The very idea of a "beta" is that it is incomplete, and the software vendor is soliciting feedback from real world users through the beta programme. Microsoft has switched to releasing a "preview" that is more or less feature complete and ready to go as a means of generating some anticipation for the actual product launch, but it isn't necessarily expecting the consumer preview community to identify and report bugs.
The software will undoubtedly be tweaked based on feedback, but Microsoft wants to get the public involved, and straying away from the scary "beta" word may be an attempt to do that.
It's not an accident that the event is being hosted in Barcelona. Interestingly, the Microsoft launch of its next generation flagship operating system is being held at the Mobile World Congress which is going on that week. Much of the excitement around Windows 8 has centred around Windows 8-based tablets and the touch-centric Metro UI, so it makes sense for Microsoft to unveil Windows 8 at an event focused on mobile devices.
The biggest change will come in the form of the full screen "Start Screen", with live tiles and a "Metro" design that is very similar to Windows Phone 7 and the latest Xbox 360 software update. Apps for this Start Screen will focus on touch, and be available through a built-in marketplace called the Store.