Windows 8 May Arrive Early to Fight iPad (But Hopefully Not)

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As Apple’s iPad threatens to gobble up PC market share, Microsoft may be moving faster than expected on Windows 8.

An anonymous source tells ZDNet‘s Mary Jo Foley that Microsoft’s shooting for an April 2012 release to manufacturing for Windows 8, which will accommodate tablets with a touch-based shell on top of the familiar Windows interface.

(WATCH: Microsoft’s First Official ‘Windows 8’ Interface Demo)

In the past, companies like Dell and Acer have received Windows releases a few months early, so they can prepare their PCs in time for the software’s public launch. The first Windows 8 devices, therefore, could arrive by summer 2012.

Foley’s source also said that Microsoft will release a Windows 8 beta at the company’s “Build” conference in September, followed by a final release candidate — essentially, a nearly-complete test version of the software with bugs to squash — in January.

Foley had previously heard that Windows 8 would release to manufacturing in Q2 or Q3, so an April release would be earlier than expected. However, she notes that Microsoft includes some breathing room in its internal target dates, just to avoid any perceptions of a delay. And Microsoft hasn’t actually announced a release date for Windows 8, so the idea that Microsoft is now moving faster is simply based on another rumor.

Still, it sounds like Microsoft is hustling to push Windows 8 out the door, especially considering previous reports that the OS would arrive in 2013. That may sound like good news, but only if Microsoft isn’t rushing to release a half-baked OS. We’ve already seen too many tablets tarnished by incomplete operating systems. The Motorola Xoom faltered on buggy Android software, and the BlackBerry PlayBook was a critical flop because it lacks native e-mail and calendar and offers few third-party apps.

Windows 8 may be the most radical shift for Microsoft since the transition from DOS to Windows 3.0. Mistakes could be fatal, and I simply don’t buy the idea that the entire tablet market will be lost if Microsoft takes a few extra months to get this right.

MORE: Why Apple Enthusiasts Are Wrong About Windows 8