There’s so much going on this month, I had to go back and do a double-take at last month’s column because I was sure I had skipped a few months. So let's get right to the heart of the matter: Here's what you need to know right now about Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Server 2012.

Windows 8 Is Done . . . But Windows 8 Will Never be Done

On August 1, 2012, about two weeks after it had actually completed development of Windows 8, Microsoft formally announced the completion of its next desktop OS. Actually, Windows 8 is a hybrid mobile and desktop platform, a point I’ll make more completely in my coming review. But suffice it to say that Microsoft—a company that routinely claims to be “betting the company” on the product du jour—actually has a lot riding on this one. And it all has to do with the rapidly changing wants of consumers, which are a larger and more fickle audience than the business-user base that Microsoft wrapped up years ago. With Apple selling more and more iPads each quarter, the software giant looked at its crystal ball and arrived at the same conclusion as industry analysts did, for a change. And Windows 8 is its response.

We will be debating the merits of Windows 8 for months to come. For now, I’d like to focus on the point of this column—literally, what you need to know—and provide you with some important information about Windows 8 (and its ARM-based stablemate, Windows RT).

Windows 8 Release Schedule

Microsoft announced that it would make Windows 8 generally available on October 26. It will ship in a retail Upgrade version only—that’s right, there are no more Full versions since all customers now qualify for upgrade pricing—in both electronic and disc-based retail packaging. It will also be available with new PCs (Windows 8) and devices (Windows RT) beginning October 26. The Windows RT–based version of Microsoft’s Surface tablet will also ship on that date, with the Windows 8 versions arriving 90 days later. No word on Surface pricing.

Before general availability, however, Microsoft's various customer groups get early access to the Windows 8 software. MSDN and TechNet subscribers receive Windows 8 RTM on August 15. Volume licensing customers with Software Assurance (SA) receive Windows 8 on August 16. The Microsoft Partner Network chimes in on August 16, and Microsoft Action Pack providers get the software on August 20. Volume license customers without SA? You’re looking at September 1.

Windows RT Pricing

Windows RT remains a dark horse. The technical tradeoffs are well understood, even though, basically, no one outside of Microsoft has one of these devices. They should be thinner and lighter than equivalent Intel-type, Windows 8 PCs, and should get better battery life. But Windows RT devices can’t run legacy desktop applications—a cute way of saying “every single Windows application ever developed by third parties, and most applications developed by Microsoft too.” So predictions about this platform are all over the map.

Also all over the map are theories about how Microsoft’s partners intend to price Windows RT devices, though the most popular theory is that device makers are courting disaster if these things come in any higher than an iPad. Having seen the price list for third-party Windows RT devices—sorry, I can’t go into details yet—I can report that there’s nothing to worry about. And I’d remind you that the price range of Apple’s beloved iPad is $499 to $830. Got it?

The question is whether Windows RT devices represent a better value proposition than the iPad. With Windows 8, you can at least argue that the devices, while heavier, louder, and less elegant than the iPad, at least run real Windows applications. With Windows RT devices . . . well, you get Office 2013. But it’s a low-end version of Office (Home and Student), and it doesn’t run any other real Windows applications. In other words, still a dark horse.

Metro Naming

One of the odder things about Windows 8 is that its architects refused to name certain key components of the OS. This led to some bizarre exchanges between people at Microsoft who professed to not understand the uproar and me (who wrote a book about Windows 8 and thus needed to name names). But one of the terms Microsoft did forward with Windows 8 during development was Metro, a design language that was first used in the development of Windows Phone, but has since cropped up in virtually every major Microsoft platform, including Windows, Windows Server, Office, Xbox, the web, and more.

With Windows 8, Microsoft refused to name the new Windows Runtime (WinRT)–based environment Metro, though it referred to the apps that run in that environment as Metro-style apps. And so most people, myself included, naturally referred to this new environment as Metro. This made sense, and still does. Except for one thing.

Within days of the completion of Windows 8, a chilling memo made its way through Microsoft and to its partners. The Metro name, it turned out, isn't owned by Microsoft, and Microsoft has been legally threatened by a company it refuses to name—Germany’s Metro AG, obviously—and has ordered the troops to stop using it. Although Microsoft has many names in reserve—including “Modern,” the original code name of Metro—that it could use instead, it has decided, bizarrely, to do the wrong thing.

Microsoft has decided that Metro will simply be called the Windows 8 UI—and that Metro-style apps will be called Windows 8 apps. In case it’s not obvious, the reason this decision is wrong is that Windows 8 is a slice in time, a single version of Windows. The Metro environment—as I will continue to call it, sorry—will continue past Windows 8, to Windows 9 or whatever comes next. And it’s already being used by multiple Microsoft platforms, as already discussed. This new naming scheme stinks.

New Mobile Mice and Keyboards

With Windows 8 and Windows RT, Microsoft is greatly expanding its long-running line of hardware peripherals by creating a new line of Surface tablets (and, it’s expected, other devices too, in the future). But Microsoft isn’t ignoring its more traditional hardware lineups. In addition to upgrading its existing Touch Mouse with Windows 8 gesture support, the software giant is also unleashing two new lines of mice and keyboards that are designed to fully take advantage of this new OS.

The Sculpt line is perhaps the least interesting, since the products—the Sculpt Mobile Keyboard and Touch Mouse—somewhat resemble existing products. But the keyboard features Windows 8 hot keys (for Charms and other system services), while the mouse includes a four-way touch scroll strip that's ideal for Metro apps.

More interesting is the new Wedge line, which consists of the Wedge Mobile Keyboard and Wedge Touch Mouse. Both feature stunning designs and will nicely complement any Windows 8 or Windows RT PC or device. The Wedge Mobile Keyboard includes Windows 8 hot keys and media keys, and a durable, snap-on cover. And the Wedge Touch Mouse looks like a work of art, with its cool wedge design. (No word yet on ergonomics.) You can find out more about these products in my overview and photo gallery.

EU Now Investigating Windows 8 and Windows RT

With both Google and Mozilla claiming that Windows 8 and Windows RT prevent them, in unique ways, from creating browsers that can offer the same technical features as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, antitrust regulators in the European Union (EU) have taken the bait. It announced in late July that it was investigating whether Microsoft is hiding capabilities from competitors, a situation that would put the software giant in contempt of its EU-based antitrust order.

Of course, Microsoft already revealed this year that it was in contempt of this order already: Apparently that court-ordered browser ballot feature hasn’t actually been included in Windows 7 since Service Pack 1 shipped, around February 2011. Oops! So what’s a little non-compliance between friends? Something tells me we’re going to find out, and I have a hard time imagining Microsoft not changing Windows 8 to meet the needs of Google and Mozilla. Stay tuned.

To the Future: How Will Microsoft Update Windows Going Forward?

Speaking of changing Windows 8, one of the dirty little secrets about Microsoft’s next OS is that—surprise—it’s not really done. See, those Metro experiences that we’re supposed to call something else are very much a 1.0 product, and the state they’re shipping in this year is very basic indeed. Microsoft can’t let Metro sit still for three years and, as it turns out, it won’t. So that monolithic, three-year development cycle that Windows has been on since Steven Sinofsky took over has been tossed aside. And for the next few years at least, we’re going to be dealing with a lot of updating.

The question, however, is what form these updates will take. (Service Packs? Feature Packs? Windows Updates?) Mr. Sinofsky announced this change to employees about a month ago in a heavily-protected internal memo that I’m still trying to get my hands on. But based on the bits I’ve heard about, everything is changing. Whether things get back to normal with Windows 9 is unclear, though there’s a credible theory making the rounds that suggests that Microsoft’s real plan is to mature the Metro stuff enough so that it can relegate the aging desktop interface to maintenance mode, then move forward, NT-style, with Windows RT.

If this vision comes to fruition, Microsoft might even reimagine versioning, especially in the product branding, so that Windows 9/Windows RT would just be called Windows. It's already doing this with online services: You never think of Windows Azure or Office 365 as version whatever. They’re just Azure and Office 365.

Windows Server 2012 RTM and Release Schedule

Windows 8 wasn’t the only product Microsoft finalized this past month. It also finished work on Windows Server 2012, which was developed in lockstep with Windows 8, though it will oddly roll out on a different, and quicker, schedule. Microsoft will make Windows Server 2012 available to customers (via new servers and in software form) on September 4. It will ship in just two mainstream product editions, Windows Server 2012 Standard and Datacenter, and two other editions, the low-priced but suddenly very versatile Windows Server 2012 Essentials and Windows Server 2012 Foundation, the latter of which will be made available only via new low-end server hardware purchases. (It’s not clear if Essentials and Foundation are shipping September 4, however.)

Office 2013 Customer and Outlook.com Previews

I’m quickly running out of space, but if we could step outside the Windows hemisphere for a moment, Microsoft also shipped preview versions of two hugely important platforms recently: Office 2013—which encompasses online services (Office 365, Office Web Apps, and more), servers (Exchange 2013, SharePoint 2013, and more), and a new lineup of office productivity suites and applications—and Outlook.com, a gorgeous new Metro-style replacement for the aging Hotmail webmail service.

Office 2013 is almost too big to wrap one’s mind around. But the short version is that Microsoft is really embracing the cloud with this release, and the preferred install type this time around will be a Click-to-Run–based virtualized installation that takes just minutes to complete. Office 365 is being expanded greatly and will even include consumer oriented versions. And Office 365 will come with Office 2013 now, with each licensed seat gaining access to five installs of the client suite. How’s that for aggressive?

Outlook.com, meanwhile, is enough to make even diehard Gmail users switch, and while many of its features debuted quietly in Hotmail over the years, they’ll be a revelation to new users. Given how good this service is, I expect to see a lot of them. You can read more about Office 2013 on my Office landing page on the SuperSite for Windows. And I’ve got you covered on Outlook.com as well.

There’s more. There always is. But I’ll need to wait for next month. Here's hoping it won’t be as eventful.