Windows 8: Why the coming beta is likely to be labeled the 'consumer preview'

The coming Windows 8 beta is looking more and more like it will be called the "consumer preview." Why the change in nomenclature?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Is Microsoft going to position the coming Windows 8 beta as a "consumer preview"? And if so, why?

Microsoft officials have repeated recently that the Windows 8 beta release is on track for late February 2012. But one public relations official with the Windows team provided a slightly different message -- and one that escaped notice by most of those who read her quote -- during the Consumer Electronics Show.

As reported by Pocket Lint, Windows Director of Consumer PR, Janelle Poole, stayed on message regarding Microsoft's continued reluctance to talk about its release-to-manufacturing/ship targets for Windows 8. But, as Windows SuperSite's Paul Thurrott noted last week, part of Poole's message deviated from the usual script. Poole called the coming Windows 8 beta "the consumer preview." Here's her quote:

"We haven't talked about the release date and we generally don't. We are talking milestone to milestone, so for us right now we're talking about the next milestone being the consumer preview happening in late February."

If you know anything about the Windows org, you know words matter. This wasn't a random throw-away.

My first question was whether it's just the internal Windows consumer PR team calling the beta "the consumer preview" or if the Microsoft brass plan to do the same. I'm hearing that the Windows organization is highly likely to settle on "consumer preview" as the name for the late-February beta.

The bigger question -- which Thurrott and I discussed during the most recent episode of Windows Weekly -- is why Microsoft may label this the consumer preview.

Thurrott's theory was that maybe the developer preview (the September Build version) will be followed by a consumer preview (the beta) and finally the enterprise preview (the release candidate).

My theory is more cynical, but not entirely unwarranted. I believe if Microsoft changes the nomenclature, the company is doing so to signify a change that's been coming for a while now. What used to constitute a "beta" doesn't really exist in the new Windows world. I said the same during the Windows 7 test period: That the current Windows organization doesn't show code publicly at all until it's pretty much set in stone and going to be tweaked very minimally. This makes Windows more predictable, but it also implies that the product is far less likely to incorporate suggested fixes from those outside Microsoft.

During the Windows 7 test period, there were still a select group of technical beta testers on whom Microsoft seemingly leaned for real feedback and guidance regarding the product. That team, known internally as the "Test Pilots," was disbanded after Windows 7 was released. As far as I know, there's no equivalent to this group this time around. And Senior Program Manager for technical beta testing for Windows, Paul Donnelly, recently left Microsoft to go to Amazon with no replacement named (again, as far as I know).

There could be other reasons Microsoft may prefer the "consumer preview" name to "beta." By claiming a product is far enough along to be used by plain old consumers -- and not just techie beta testers -- Microsoft officials could be hoping to convince those who think a possible Q3 Windows 8 launch will be too late for Microsoft to shoe-horn its way into the tablet space that Windows 8 is right around the corner. ("Hey, it's basically done -- it's in consumer preview now!")

Such a name also could help Microsoft's PC partners who need a way to make new tablets and PCs that they're bringing to market from now until the time that Windows 8 is shipping seem more up-to-date and palatable. ("This runs the Windows 8 Consumer Preview -- so you know it'll be able to run the final Windows 8 with no problem.")

Microsoft officials aren't saying anything beyond the fact that the next Windows 8 release is due out in late February and that there is no separate "consumer preview" in the works -- meaning, to me, the one-and-only Windows 8 beta is highly likely to be called the "Consumer Preview" when it is released.

What's your take as to why Microsoft is leaning toward calling the beta a "consumer preview" -- and what effect (if any) this will have on Redmond, its developers, partners and customers? Thoughts?

Update (January 25) : Thanks to reader Darren Baker, there's now validation that Microsoft is planning to call the beta the consumer preview. Here's an excerpt, courtesy of Baker, from the latest Microsoft Hardware newsletter that uses the "Consumer Preview" nomenclature.

(click on snippet to enlarge)

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