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In what quickly became the worst-case secret in tech history, Microsoft is today delivering the Windows 8 Release Preview, the final major pre-release milestone of its next operating system for personal computing devices. The Windows 8 Release Preview comes just three months after the previous milestone, the Consumer Preview. And as expected, it’s a heck of a lot nicer, and much closer to completion.

In a set of Release Preview briefings, Microsoft representatives described this milestone as “feature complete,” and while that’s a bit of a stretch—we already know that the desktop theme is getting a major, non-Aero overhaul post-Release Preview and that the bundled apps will be updated on an ongoing basis—it’s fair to say that the Windows 8 platform, the underlying bits, is complete. Yes, there will be bug fixes and the inevitable performance tuning. But Windows 8 as it appears in the Release Preview—again, sans the desktop theme and a few other coming changes—is pretty much Windows 8. This is it, folks.

If you’ve been following my Windows 8 writings and podcast-based pontifications over the past year, you know that I’ve been all over the map when it comes to this release. But that’s an indication, I think, of the sheer amount of new here. Windows 8 isn’t just an improved version of Windows 7. Windows 8 is a brand new user experience and app model running on a brand new runtime engine that somehow simultaneously opens up Microsoft’s core product to incredible new mobile markets while still, amazingly, and strangely, working with all existing desktop-based applications, utilities, drivers, and more.

With this in mind, it’s time to start evaluating Windows 8 as it is, now, in the Release Preview, and not looking forward to some future where whatever forces will come together and deliver some more complete vision. There’s no more complete vision coming. This is it. This is Windows 8, this is the OS that Microsoft and its hardware partners will sell come the fall, and this is the platform that Microsoft has bet its future on … now. With the Developer Preview in late 2011, we had to wait for the apps. With the Consumer Preview, we had to wait for more mature apps. And now with the Release Preview … there’s no waiting. This is it.

I’ve asked people—enthusiasts, IT pros, regular users—to be pragmatic about Windows 8, to take the time to learn how it works and to not blindly criticize this release in a knee-jerk fashion. Some are too quick to decry Windows 8 as “the next Vista,” a product that for some reason has been universally panned despite outselling its nearest rival, OS X, by a factor of about a hundred. But this comparison is actually apt, just not for the reason you think. Windows 8 is very much like Vista because it represents a sea change, a huge platform bet that will confuse and confound some, even while it sets up Windows for another decade of expansion. Maybe there will be a Windows 9 that will clean up the mess, like Windows 7 cleaned up Vista’s mess. But as I’ve written in the past, if Windows 8 is a mess, and it is, then it’s a wonderful mess.

I say that because I’m a tech enthusiast at heart. And while I’m a million miles and about 20 years removed from the days when I would simply use technology to use technology—and not use technology to get something done—I still feel the same excitement every time a new Windows release comes down the pike. They’re all exciting in their own way, of course, but Windows 8 is particularly exciting to me because it represents Microsoft actually taking a chance for once, making a big bet, and not doing the same old tentative thing it’s done since Vista. That this normally somnolent corporation was able to smash its core product against a wall and start over as it has with Windows 8 isn’t just amazing, it’s exciting. This isn’t how Microsoft does things. And while one can complain about the details—I recently described the dual Metro and desktop environments in Windows 8 as a “Frankenstein’s monster,” if you’re looking for an example—one must also simultaneously applaud Microsoft for actually going for it. I mean, they could have simply released Windows 7.5 and watched the general computing market waltz away from them.

Some, too, have complained that Microsoft should have released the Metro environment as a standalone product, perhaps as a Windows Phone tablet or whatever. And while I personally would have loved to have seen that (still would, in fact), Microsoft was right not to pursue that strategy. If the past decade has proven anything, between Zune, Windows Mobile, and now Windows Phone, Microsoft’s attempts to make standalone devices haven’t fared well, and a Windows Phone tablet (or whatever), while marvelous to behold (you know, like the Zune HD), wouldn’t have sold at all (you know, like the Zune HD). Yes, I would have bought one. And maybe you would have too. And that’d be about it.

By melding Metro to Windows—actually, by melding Windows to Metro—Microsoft has done something it couldn’t have done with a standalone, separate product. It will put this wonderful user experience and the great technology behind it in front of several hundred million people every single year going forward. And that means that people will actually use it, and get good at it, and, I think, will grow to love it.

And that’s important. Not just for Windows and for Microsoft, but for those of us who wish that something different than the crushing, totalitarian sameness of Apple is popular for a change.

The Windows 8 Release Preview is Windows 8. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I urge you to do so now, and to spend time examining its integrated experiences, it’s Windows Store and new third party apps, and all of the other stuff—weird and otherwise—that makes Windows 8 special. Someday, as the final release is imminent, I’ll actually review this thing, try to really wrap my mind around it. But right now, I just want to continue using it, writing about it, and observing and listening to others who are doing the same.

The Windows 8 Release Preview is here. Go get it.

And then read the many articles I’ve prepared for this release. More are coming, but you can get started with Windows 8 Release Preview: The Ultimate Delta Guide, an overview of what I’ve published so far.

Editor's note: See also John Savill's FAQ with resources for downloading Windows 8:  Q: Where can I download Windows 8 Release Preview and Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate?