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After several years of development and many months of hype and anticipation, Windows 8 and Windows RT, the next generation of Microsoft's flagship operating system software, go on sale Friday.
In a splashy press event in New York, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and other Microsoft executives formally launched the new software, as well as announcing the availability of Surface for RT, Microsoft's first branded computer product.
"Windows 8. Yeah, I'm excited," an ebullient Ballmer said taking the stage. "Windows 8, Windows RT with Office 2013, and Surface are here."
On stage at the event, held in the cavernous Pier 57 on Manhattan's West Side, Ballmer was surrounded by some 20 laptop and tablet computers running Windows 8 and Windows RT.
"In creating Windows 8, we shunned the incremental," said Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live Division, in a speech preceding Ballmer. Sinofsky, who had ultimate responsibility for the Windows 8 development, described the new software as a quantum leap in personal computing.
"We boldly re-imagined Windows," he added, using a phrase common among Microsoft executives ever since the company began publicly discussing Windows 8 at its Microsoft Build conference one year ago. "Today is an amazing day in the evolution of PCs."
Windows is already installed on some 1.1 billion PCs worldwide, and Sinofsky said that with Windows 8 Microsoft is "looking forward to the next billion." There are already 16 million installations of pre-release versions of Windows 8 and Windows RT, Sinofsky said, and the products have undergone 1.24 billion hours of pre-release testing.
Sinofsky touted the software's compatibility with Windows 7 hardware and software, its smaller memory footprint, faster boot time and improved battery management capabilities. More than 1,000 hardware devices are certified to run Windows 8, some priced less than $300, he said.
"Windows 8 has a ton of new features," said Carl Mazzanti, CEO of eMazzanti Technologies, a Microsoft partner based in Hoboken, N.J. "We have this backlog of orders [for Windows 8] with our customers that have been sitting there waiting for the first week in November."
While Windows 8 will spur upgrade work for some partners, many solution providers see a big opportunity to sell Windows-based tablets to businesses.
Windows 7 debuted three years ago, and Microsoft has sold 670 million Windows 7 licenses. Microsoft executives, both at the Thursday event and in earlier interviews, have emphasized how Windows 7 and 8 can co-exist, given their compatibility, rather than pitching the new OS as a Windows 7 replacement.
"You can run Windows 7 and Windows 8 side by side. The first priority is to [get customers to] migrate off of Windows XP," said Erwin Visser, senior director of the Windows Business Group, in an interview Wednesday. The decade-old Windows XP accounts for 45 percent of all Windows implementations, and support for the product ends in April 2014.