When Windows 8 Consumer Preview is available Wednesday it should answer questions that the earlier developers preview didn't.
Chief among these is what applications will be available right away that are written in what Microsoft calls Metro style. Metro style refers both to the graphical look of the user interface, which relies on words rather than icons, and to the way individual applications interact with the touchscreen environment Windows 8 supports.
The Windows Store, which will be the marketplace for acquiring these applications, launches Wednesday, too, so users will get their answer.
1. Will Windows on ARM (WOA) be available?
The answer is mostly no in that, except for the top-notch developers Microsoft has chosen to receive it, there will be no preview of the platform.
First, WOA is the distinct version of Windows that is intended to run only on power-scrimping ARM-based devices. It can handle only Metro-style apps and Office 15 versions of some office apps. Microsoft is shipping WOA only bundled with the devices it runs on. It won't be downloadable as a separate software to load on whatever device customers want to use.
That said, Microsoft has said that a version of it will be available about the time that Windows 8 Consumer Preview is available. It has also said it will issue it on custom WOA-capable machines to a very select group of developers. Since the software is bundled with hardware, it would be pretty costly to have a public beta.
However if it is issued to the elite group, expect some details about it and its capabilities that haven't been released by Microsoft.
2. Will Microsoft apps support touch mode, and if so, when?
This is important to those who want to use tablets but want more laptop functionality. Microsoft says it is preparing touch mode for the next major release of Office (Office 15) applications, some of which will ship with WOA devices. Office 15 itself is due out sometime by the end of the year, industry observers say, but Microsoft hasn't set a date.
The question remains whether and when other Microsoft applications will be available in Metro style. This has important implications for businesses that want to embrace Windows 8 and its touch-friendly characteristics and mobility but need to have a broader set of applications to get business done. It makes sense for Microsoft to do this, but keep an eye on what apps pop up in the Windows store.
3. How well will Windows 8 perform on legacy x86 hardware?
According to Microsoft, Windows 8 hardware requirements are no greater than those for Windows 7, and the company recommends that Windows 8 Consumer Preview users install the operating system on devices that are marked Windows 7 compatible. The new operating system supports all the applications Windows 7 supports on x86 PCs, Microsoft says.
That's the promise, and the preview will let consumers find out one way or the other whether that's strictly the case.
There are some features that may take a while for most consumers to test. Microsoft's hardware requirements for Windows 8 include touchscreen, resume speed, compass, gyroscope, ambient light adjustment and accelerometer as well as five programmable buttons, among others. Likely, consumers won't have devices that meet all these specs, so unless they run out and buy hardware that does, they'll have to wait to hear reports from others who do have such hardware.
4. What will the Metro style multitasking interface be like?
When running Windows 8 without keyboard or mouse, users pick and choose the apps they want from a Start screen. (The desktop and Start button themselves are gone.) If they are already in an app, they can swipe from the side of the screen to view more, but if they have many applications active, it can be a chore to find the one they want - not crippling, but more cumbersome than using a desktop or taskbar buttons.
Users who have test-driven Windows 8 in the developers preview have complained about this, and it's possible Microsoft has addressed it. And if it has not, there's still the chance that this and other issues consumers discover will be dealt with before the commercial version of Windows 8 ships, which is likely to happen late this year.