Microsoft on Tuesday confirmed that it will release a public beta of Windows 8 in late February, 2012.
The company broke the news at a San Francisco developers event Tuesday, where Antoine Leblond, vice president of Windows Web services, touted Windows Store, the app market that will be the sole distribution channel for applications designed to run in Windows 8's new "Metro" interface.
Windows Store will open to the public at the same time Windows 8's beta ships, a Microsoft spokeswoman said.
While Microsoft has yet to talk about an official launch date for Windows 8, the beta's timing hints at a fall 2012 debut, assuming the company paces Windows 8's final development and testing as it did Windows 7's.
Windows 7's first developer-oriented release was at the end of October 2008. Microsoft offered a public beta of the OS in January 2009, and the final version hit shelves the third week of October, 2009.
Although Windows 8's beta will appear a month later in the cycle -- February instead of January -- its Developer Preview launched a month earlier, in mid-September rather than Windows 7's October, perhaps making the two schedules a wash.
At the same Tuesday event, Microsoft said more than 3 million copies of the Windows 8 Developer Preview had been downloaded since it was released to the public Sept. 13.
That has been enough to register on some Web metrics. Last month, according to California-based Net Applications, Windows 8 accounted for three-hundredths of 1% of all personal computers that accessed the Internet, or about one-fourth the number of Windows 2000-powered PCs, and half again as many as ran the even older Windows 98.
Microsoft said nothing Tuesday about the feature set customers can expect to see in the beta, or what day in February it would appear on the company's download servers.
During the Windows 8's beta test stretch, only free apps will be allowed in the Windows Store. Yesterday, the company also kicked off a "First Apps" contest, whose judges will select eight apps to feature during the store's beta run.
The deadline for submitting a Metro app to the contest is Jan. 8, 2012.
Microsoft will also extend invitations to other developers to create content for the Windows Store's late-February opening.
The Windows 8 Developer Preview continues to be available from Microsoft's website.