Speaking at the Microsoft Developer Forum in Tokyo in May, CEO Steve Ballmer made an offhand reference to "Windows 8," the first time anyone at Microsoft had mentioned by name the next generation of the company's flagship software. And so began a series of announcements, previews and speculation that made Windows 8 one of the most important software stories in 2011 -- even though the product itself won't appear until 2012. Vowing to do a better job than it did with Windows 7, Microsoft launched the "Building Windows 8" blog to keep customers, channel partners and developers informed about the software's progress. And developers got their hands on a "developer preview" release in September at the Microsoft Build conference. Most important was Microsoft's plans to design Windows 8 and its "metro" user interface to run on both desktop PCs and tablets. That would make Microsoft a player in the tablet computer market where it has been a no-show. But some question whether Microsoft -- and Windows -- might be too late to the tablet party.