Microsoft has announced that it's wrapped up Windows 8 and declared that the operating system has met the "release to manufacturing" (RTM) milestone.
"A short while ago we started releasing Windows 8 to PC OEM and manufacturing partners," said Stephen Sinofsky, the president of Microsoft's Windows group, in a blog post Wednesday.
"Kudos to them for managing the process," said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "It's an important milestone, so congratulations. But it's just the first step."
As Cherry noted, RTM is a major mark in Microsoft's development process. It signals that the completed code is ready to send to computer makers, other hardware partners who need to test their device drivers and software, and to outside developers working on compatible programs.
The news was not unexpected: Two weeks ago when Microsoft announced Windows 8's on-sale date as Oct. 26, it said that it would reach RTM the first week of August.
Some users will have access to the Windows 8 final code months before October. Developers and IT professionals who subscribe to MSDN (Microsoft Developers Network) will be able to download the new operating system starting Aug. 15. TechNet subscribers can download a trial of Windows 8 RTM that same day.
Enterprises with current Software Assurance licensing plans in place -- Software Assurance is essentially an annuity that gives companies the right to run any version of a product -- will be able to grab Windows 8 starting Aug. 16, as will members of the Microsoft Partner Network.
Firms with volume licensing deals but no Software Assurance can purchase the new OS beginning Sept. 1.
Others, including consumers who have installed the Windows 8 Release Preview, will have to wait. The preview expires Jan. 15, 2013.
October 26 also marks the start of the $39.99 Windows 8 Pro upgrade offer for customers with PCs running Windows 7, Vista or Windows XP, as well as when people who purchased a new Windows 7 PC between June 2, 2012 and January 31, 2013, can acquire Windows 8 Pro for $14.99.
Microsoft will also launch the first of its own tablets, the Windows RT-equipped Surface, on Oct. 26.
Among the details still missing about Windows 8 is the price of the operating system. Microsoft has not revealed pricing for "System Builder," the license required for home-built PCs and Macs adding a new virtual machine running Windows 8.
OEMs will have 10 fewer days to get Windows 8 on new hardware than they did three years ago when Windows 7 reached RTM on July 22, 2009. Windows 7 hit retail on Oct. 25 of that year.
Beginning Aug. 15, when MSDN and TechNet subscribers can get their hands on Windows 8 RTM, developers will be able to upload their apps to the Windows Store, Microsoft's electronic market for Metro-style software that will run on both Windows 8 and its offshoot, Windows RT.
But while RTM is a crucial milestone, analysts still have concerns.
"At launch, the store needs at least 5000 very-high-quality Metro apps," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Otherwise, Microsoft will have an extremely hard time, if not an impossible time, selling a Windows 8- or Windows RT-based tablet."
Moorhead said he was "concerned" that Microsoft would not meet his minimal benchmark, noting that in nearly a year -- the company first unveiled Windows 8 and developer tools in September 2011 - the store has accumulated only a couple hundred apps. "If we map where they're at against where Apple and Android were at at the same point, they were well ahead of where Microsoft is now," Moorhead said.
Cherry had the same concern about Windows 8, RTM notwithstanding.
"Tell me an app that you just have to have today," Cherry said. "We need to see the exciting Metro apps that do something, that expose all the features of the OS that Microsoft has just completed. It's great that the OS is ready, but if I was to start using it on Aug. 15, what am I going to do on the Metro side of the house? I really don't know."
He also pointed out that virtually no one has used a Windows RT-powered tablet long enough to evaluate either the hardware's or the operating system's performance. "We need to see hardware that [Windows 8 and Windows RT] absolutely expose all the value Microsoft has put into the OS," Cherry said.
Windows 8 is the second edition of Microsoft's dominant operating system that Sinofsky has guided through development. "He made sure this shipped on time," said Moorhead.
Sinofsky, a 23-year veteran of Microsoft, launched Windows 7 on time in 2009, a coup for the company after the debacle of Windows Vista, which had been delayed several times and was faced with problems even after it launched. Vista was one of Microsoft's few Windows failures, never acquiring more than a 20% share of the OS market.
According to Web analytics company Net Applications, Windows 8 has been adopted by relatively few users during its preview period. In July, the new operating system accounted for only 0.2% of all copies of Windows used that month.
In July 2009, Windows 7 - which was about at the same stage as Windows 8 is today - powered 1 per cent of all Windows PCs, or five times the percentage of this year's upgrade.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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