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With Mac OS X Lion coming this summer, is 2012 too late for Windows 8?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has let the cat out of the bag — again. Microsoft’s biggest breacher of new product information calls the next big operating system “Windows 8″ and reveals that it’s coming “next year.” Ballmer has done this kind of thing before, causing massive, collective PR staff heart failure and rapid response along the lines: “that’s not what he meant.” I wonder what the excuse for Ballmer’s big mouth will be this time.

Ballmer made the missives rather oft-hXandely earlier today to Microsoft Developer Forum attendees in Tokyo. In context, he speaks about the present: “We’re obviously hard at work on the next version of Windows. Windows 7 PCs will sell over 350 million units this year. We’ve done a lot in Windows 7 to improve customer satisfaction. We have a brand new user interface. We’ve added touch, and ink, and speech.”

He then progresses to the future: “As we look forward to the next generation of Windows systems, which will come out next year, there’s a whole lot more coming. As we progress through the year, you ought to expect to hear a lot about Windows 8. Windows 8 slates, tablets, PCs, a variety of different form factors.”

We all may “hear a lot about Windows 8″ starting next week. Today, Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows & Windows Live division, was announced as a last-minute addition to the D9 conference commencing May 31. Three years ago, Windows 7 made its debut at D6. D is one of the most prestigious conferences held anywhere, with a “Who’s Who” list of participants and attendees.

Ballmer’s timing on the slip, if it can be called that, is interesting. Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference opens on June 6 in San Francisco, where Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion” will be major focus. Ballmer’s slip and Sinofsky’s D9 appearance are sure to generate Windows 8 buzz and rumors before WWDC. Apple’s policy is never to discuss new products before they’re announced, which would be good for Microsoft being the buzz child for the next week or so.

While Windows has enormous PC market share, many people perceive Microsoft and the operating system to be in decline. Also, Apple is the news media’s and Wall Street’s love child of the moment. The slightest thing Apple becomes enormous buzz. Look at all the nitpicking rumors about the most picayune features supposedly coming with iPhone 5. I’m surprised no one has speculated about a special toilet mode so people can talk in the loo without callers knowing. Can you imagine Apple CEO Steve Jobs doing a “one more thing” pitch about that and the specially designed noise-cancelling microphones to dampen the room’s echo and cut out flushing and other sounds.

First to Marketing, or First to Market

But Lion will be more than buzz. It’s the real deal. Apple had previously set “summer 2011″ as Lion’s release, giving the new Mac OS at least a year’s release lead over Windows 8. Apple’s mobile iOS also will be center stage during WWDC. Apple will go to developers with a fairly unified development platform for mobile devices and desktop computers. Apple will offer two applications stores — for iOS and Mac OS X. Apple launched the latter in January, but it will be built-in to Lion. Microsoft is rumored to be preparing an app store for Windows, but will 2012 be too late?

Apple and Microsoft will both be looking to woo as many developers to their platforms as possible — not just desktop operating systems, but the mobile stuff, too. In perhaps yet another preemptive marketing move, Microsoft is holding a Windows Phone event tomorrow morning in New York. Oh yeah, Ballmer shot off his mouth about that, too, formerly calling the update, codename “Mango,” Windows Phone 7.5.

“The relationship with developers is the most fundamental relationship between Microsoft and its customers,” Ballmer says, in Tokyo today. “You’re it. You write the programs, the applications that really turn on all of our customers to the power of information technology, whether you’re writing for the phone or the Xbox, the PC, or the tablet, your work is the work of our industry. And our No. 1 goal in life is to support the developers, developers, developers here in Japan and across the world.”

Apple will make similar pitch in two weeks to its developers. The difference: Microsoft is aggressively getting out in front of Apple discussing new features in Windows Phone and Windows 8, but the next versions of iOS and Mac OS X are scheduled to ship first. The mobile operating system also is expected this year and before the first Windows 7.5 handsets ship. Which position would you rather have? First to marketing or first to market?

“Windows 7 PCs will sell over 350 million units this year,” Ballmer asserts. Mac shipments are likely to be 14 million to 16 million, based on recent quarterly growth rates. By the numbers, Apple could ship Lion a dozen years before Windows 8 and still not make much dent in Windows PC shipments like these. But Lion isn’t a lonely beast. It stands alongside iOS devices, which helped propel Apple revenue from $13.5 billion in calendar first quarter 2010 to $26.7 billion by year’s end. Income rose from $3.1 billion to $6 billion. In calendar first quarter 2011, Apple revenue and income exceeded Microsoft’s. So by a different measure, Apple could conceivably continue its phenomenal growth bolstered by getting to market first.

But none of this really answers the question posed in the headline, because the future is uncertain in a highly competitive market. But it’s fun, and often useful, to conjecture and debate. So I ask you to answer in comments the question: With Mac OS X Lion coming this summer, is 2012 too late for Windows 8?