While I focused on the Windows 8 Release Preview exclusively last month, Microsoft has been busy finalizing several key platform products, many of which are, or soon will be, available for evaluation. Everything is changing in 2012, and it all starts now.

Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate

Delivered alongside the Windows 8 Release Preview in very late May, about a week ahead of the purported schedule, the Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate (RC) is, if anything, even more mature and complete than its desktop sibling. Indeed, to the first point, Microsoft claims that Windows Server 2012 (formerly code-named Windows Server 8) was, in fact, feature-complete as far back as the beta release in late February. And to the latter point, Microsoft revealed that its Bing search service was using the Windows Server 2012 RC for 100 percent of its worldwide queries, a stunning proof point for this OS’s state of completion.

If you’ve been evaluating Windows Server 2012, you know that this state of completion is, paradoxically, both factual and illusory. On the one hand, this Server release has always had an interesting vibe of solidity about it, a high quality level that the Windows client team needed much, much more time to achieve. But on the other hand, Windows Server 2012 is as much a slice in time as is Windows 8—something that, yes, Microsoft has to deliver on a predictable schedule but also needs to update going forward since much of it seems incomplete, or at least less fully realized. And in the case of Windows Server 2012, the incomplete bits, alas, include some key pieces of UI.

Chief among these is the new Server Manager, a strange new Metro-like (but not “Metro-based”) dashboard that will cause some admins and IT pros fits until they get used to it. The new Server Manager succeeds in consolidating many of the tools and functionality that these folks will need to use every day, and it’s fairly successful as a front end to Server 2012’s new multi-machine management philosophy. But the weirdness of this UI, which is different from every single other management interface in the system, is going to be off-putting to many.

Although admins and IT pros might be struggling with the interfaces in Server 2012, one thing they won’t quibble over is the technical capability of the system. We’ve come to expect fairly aggressive improvements in performance and scalability with each Windows Server release. But Server 2012 is particularly impressive in these areas.

For example, the maximum number of logical processors jumps from 64 in Windows Server 2008 R2 to 320 in Server 2012, an improvement of 500 percent. And maximum physical memory leaps from 1TB to 4TB.

On the virtualization side, the improvements are likewise incredible. The maximum number of virtual processors per host jumps from 512 in Server 2008 R2 to 2,048 in Server 2012. Virtual processors jump to 64, from 4. The maximum memory per virtual machine (VM) is now 1TB, up from 64GB. And the maximum number of active VMs leaps to 1,024, up from 384.

These are the kinds of numbers that drive sales, since they allow for far higher workload densities than do previous Server versions. And when combined with other new capabilities in Server 2012, particularly in Hyper-V 3.0, something tells me that this version of Server won’t be a tough sell at all, despite any qualms over the new UIs.

You should evaluate Windows Server 2012 RC for yourself, of course. You can get started at the Microsoft TechNet Evaluation Center.

Visual Studio 2012 RC

Also delivered in tandem with the Windows 8 Release Preview, the Visual Studio 2012 Release Candidate (RC) provides a suitably near-final peek at Microsoft’s next-generation developer tools and, as important, developer platforms. Unlike Server 2012, however, Visual Studio 2012—formerly known as Visual Studio 11—has been rocked by some confusing last-minute changes. Actually, in that way, it’s a lot like Windows 8.

You might not be surprised to discover that part of the problem is Metro. Visual Studio is of course a set of desktop applications, but in its mad bid to get everyone used to this style of user experience, Microsoft is also adding a “Metro-like” look and feel to many of its non-Metro applications, too. This includes Server 2012’s Server Manager, as I mentioned, but also the applications in Office 15 and, as it turns out, the various versions of Visual Studio 2012.

When you hear the term “Metro,” you might immediately visualize flat tiles and tons of white space, but the Metro design philosophy is a bit more nuanced than that. For example, it pushes the notion of content, not application "chrome," and the belief that the app’s UI should get out of the way so that the point of the app—the content—can shine.

Unfortunately, this is where the Visual Studio team got things wrong, at least with the Visual Studio 2012/11 Beta: The resulting UI, designed to emphasize the code you’re writing rather than the surrounding toolbars and widgets, was deemed an endless sea of green by developers, who complained en masse to the software giant about this dubious design choice. So one of the things Microsoft fixed in the RC was to add color and contrast to the Visual Studio 2012 UI.

Developers weren’t done complaining, however. In separate but related announcements timed closely to the RC, Microsoft revealed which VS 2012 editions it would make available, including all of the expected paid versions (Professional, Test Professional, Premium, Ultimate) as well as Visual Studio 11 Express for Windows 8 (with support for C#, C++,JavaScript, and Visual Basic—VB), Visual Studio Express for Windows Phone, Visual Studio Express for Web, and an as-yet-unnamed Visual Studio Express product for Windows Azure v.Next.

What was missing was a free Express product for the now-deprecated desktop, but Microsoft explained that amateur developers and students could continue to use the existing Visual C#, VB, and C++ Express 2010 editions instead. If you thought that was the end of it—after all, why would Microsoft support a legacy developer platform with brand new tools when the existing ones work just fine?—you’d be very wrong. Free desktop development, like the color blue, is apparently a God-given right.

So I reacted with some amusement when Microsoft actually announced a few weeks later that it would create a new, free version of Visual Studio, called Visual Studio Express 2012 For Windows Desktop, that will support desktop-based C++, C#, or VB development. Why did they give in? I have no idea, but you can bet that after all the fuss, very few users will ever bother with this package anyway. I wish the Windows client team was this pliable. You can find the RC versions of several Visual Studio 2012 editions at the Microsoft website.

Windows 8, Post–Release Preview

Speaking of the client team, although I covered the Windows 8 Release Preview last month, Microsoft has since revealed that it will be making several changes to the product after the Release Preview. I’ve argued that these changes suggest that the “feature-complete” tag on the Release Preview is a bit of a stretch, but Microsoft tells me that there are a few more important things to consider.

First, Microsoft routinely makes fit and finish changes to Windows as late as possible in the development cycle, which is to say between the final prerelease milestone (in this case the Release Preview, but normally the Release Candidate) and the final RTM version of the OS. This is true enough—though with Windows 7, the changes were so minor that it’s perhaps forgivable that I’ve forgotten about this policy.

Second, much of what we consider to be Windows 8 is in fact decoupled from the normal, three-year Windows development time period. That is, the (Metro-style) apps that come with Windows 8 will be updated regularly moving forward and won’t need to wait for the next version of Windows—which is a major change from previous versions and a realization of the goal for the applications that used to be part of Windows Live Essentials. So even though the Windows 8 Release Candidate ships with apps of varying quality, all of them will likely change before Windows 8 is finalized and then change again regularly over time.

These are both good points, but the sheer level of change we’re going to see post–Release Preview is somewhat alarming. The biggest change—the removal of the Aero desktop theme that Microsoft first previewed in late 2003, in favor of a flatter, more modern, and, yes, “Metro-like” theme—stinks of a last-minute flip-flop. Microsoft’s original goal for Windows 8 was that businesses would be able to roll out both Windows 7 and 8, side by side, and that they wouldn’t need to retrain users because Windows 8 would look and work so much like Windows 7 that they’d be essentially identical.

This goal suggested that Microsoft would let businesses configure Windows 8 in such a way that users could boot directly to the desktop and skip the Metro-style Start Screen. But the software giant has had a change of heart, and my sources at Microsoft tell me it’s been busy ripping out legacy code for the old Start button and Start Menu so that developers won’t be able to write utilities that bring those features back. And boot to the desktop? Forget about it.

The move to a Metro-like desktop is obviously the final nail in the side-by-side usage coffin. Now, Windows 7 and Windows 8 will look absolutely nothing like each other, even when Windows 8 is used in desktop mode. And although it’s unlikely that Microsoft will ever admit this—it’s still pushing a pretty decent list of new business-oriented features in Windows 8, too, of course—it’s clear to me why this has happened: Businesses will never roll out Windows 8 anyway.

That’s because businesses are already rolling out Windows 7 in record numbers. In fact, as Microsoft just revealed, it has sold over 600 million licenses to Windows 7 since October 2009. So Windows 7 is the next XP, that version of Windows that will remain in use in businesses long after the software giant has moved forward to newer product versions. Windows 8 will still go out on hundreds of millions of new consumer PCs and devices, sure. But most businesses will continue to downgrade, this time to Windows 7. So why bother with making Windows 8 look like its predecessor?

(Microsoft’s official story is that the Aero theme sucks battery life too much and that moving to a non-translucent theme will help. I guess I buy that, but it’s not the full story.)

Coming Soon: Office 15 Beta and Windows Phone 8

There’s more of course, and with Microsoft TechEd 2012 and a special Windows Phone Summit happening in June 2012, I think it’s fair to say we’ll have a lot more to say about Office 15 (including new SharePoint and Exchange versions) and Windows Phone 8 next month. To whet your appetite for this onslaught of newness, however, I'll tell you that I’m expecting to see the final release of Office 15 in early 2013, possibly accompanied—finally—by mobile app versions of key Office applications for Apple iPad and possibly even Android. Windows Phone 8, I’m told, will be based on Windows 8 and utilize a special version of the Windows RT developer libraries that’s specially tailored for handsets. And the Visual Studio developer environment will run virtualized Windows Phone devices in … wait for it… Hyper-V 3.0. More soon.