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Windows 8 beta could debut as early as February

Microsoft will release a public beta of its next operating system in late February of 2012, according to The Next Web.

Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

A public beta of Windows 8 will launch in late February of next year, says tech news site The Next Web.

Citing "sources close to Microsoft," TNW pointed to February for the beta's debut but said the release date for the final version of Windows 8 remains a mystery, though it's expected to ship next year.

Mary Jo Foley of CNET sister site ZDNet said she's heard that the beta would appear after next month's Consumer Electronics Show, which runs from January 10 to 13, but Foley said she isn't aware of any specific dates.

If the February timeframe holds true for the beta, the RTM (release-to-manufacturing) version of Windows 8 could hit the market as early as June. The final shipping version would then see the light of day in the third quarter, just in time to land on PCs and mobile devices for the 2012 holiday season.

This past June, Dan'l Lewin, Microsoft corporate vice president for Strategic and Emerging Business Development, hinted at a fall 2012 release date for the new OS, though that was predicated on the beta already being out by now.

TNW's sources didn't reveal which features would be in the beta, but they did say the feature set is not yet nailed down.

Microsoft released its Developer Preview Edition in mid September, offering a peek at Windows 8 as it was then. But the company has confirmed that the Developer Preview was a work in progress, and that a fair number of changes and new features are due for the beta and final versions.

In particular, Microsoft has heard a fair amount of concern and criticism over the new Metro interface that will pop up in Windows 8. Though the traditional Windows desktop will remain an option, Microsoft has been touting Metro as the wave of the future. But users haven't been shy about pointing out the perceived limitations and drawbacks of the touch-based Metro UI, especially on desktops and laptops.

Responding to the current gripes about Metro, Microsoft has reminded users that certain things aren't yet finished in the Developer Preview and has promised to make the UI friendlier toward mice and keyboards.

In a concession to some of the concerns, Microsoft recently revealed that it was cooking up a new Windows 8 Apps screen that would better mimic the design of the current All Programs menu. Such a screen would let people more easily find and launch specific applications by name or category.

It's a safe bet that we'll see even more tweaks between the Developer Preview and the beta, even if the latter is released as early as February.

Whenever Windows 8 finally launches, one change that may be destined for the OS is a new file system. Leaked by tech enthusiast site WinUnleaked, the new file system would be known as ReFS (Resilient File System).

Though not much is known about ReFS at this point, WinRumors speculates that it could be an offshoot of Microsoft's WinFS (Windows Future Storage). Originally intended for Windows Vista but dropped before the OS came to the market, WinFS was supposed to be a new way for the operating system to manage data by means of a database. The new file system would have enhanced searching and the sharing of data between applications.

But even if ReFS does appear in Windows 8, it may pop up just in the server edition. Citing its own sources, WinRumors says that only Windows 8 Server would use the new file system, as a way to improve reliability against hardware and software issues. The client versions of the new OS would not be able to tap into ReFS and would presumably stick with the current NTFS file system.

A Microsoft representative told CNET that the company had nothing to share about ReFS at this point.

Update, 8:45 a.m. PT: Adds response from Microsoft.