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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) --Microsoft is scrambling to preserve what's left of its kingdom, and Windows 8 could be the key to the company's future.

Since the company released its Windows operating system in 1985, most of the sequels have been variations on the same theme. Not that it mattered much. Regardless of the software's quality, Microsoft managed to remain at the center of the personal computing universe.

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The stakes are much different as Microsoft puts the finishing touches on Windows 8 - perhaps the most important piece of software the Redmond, Washington, company has designed since co-founder Bill Gates won the contract to build the first operating system for IBM Corp.'s personal computer in the early 1980s.

A test, or "beta", version of the revamped operating system will be unveiled Wednesday in Barcelona, nudging Windows 8 a step closer to its anticipated mass market release in September or October. The company will offer the most extensive look at Windows 8's progress since it released an early version of the system to developers five months ago.

Microsoft designed Windows 8 to help it perform a difficult balancing act. The company hopes to keep milking revenue from a PC market that appears to be past its prime, while trying to gain a stronger foothold in the more fertile field of mobile devices. It's a booming market that, so far, has been defined and dominated by Apple's trend-setting iPhone and iPad and Google Inc.'s ubiquitous Android software.

"Microsoft's future path is riding on Windows 8 and its success," said Gartner Inc. analyst David Cearley. "This is a chance for Microsoft to re-establish itself in a market where it's becoming increasingly irrelevant."

If Windows 8 is a hit, it could also help lift the fortunes of struggling PC makers, including Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Besides giving businesses and consumers a reason to consider new PC purchases, Windows 8 is expected to spawn a new breed of hybrid machines that will be part tablet computer, part laptop.

If Windows 8 is a flop, however, it will increase the pressure on Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. His 12-year reign has been marred by the company's troubles adapting to an Internet-driven upheaval. As Microsoft has stumbled, faster-innovating companies such as Apple and Google have elbowed their way into a position to steer the direction of computing for the next decade or two.

Windows 8 is radically different from its predecessors. The system won't even have Microsoft's familiar "Start" menu. All applications are spread across a mosaic of tiles, as part of a design Microsoft calls "Metro." The tiles, which resemble road signs, can be navigated with a swipe of the finger on the display screen or with a keyboard and a computer mouse. The tiles also provide a glimpse at the activity occurring in applications connected to the Web, such as e-mail.

The system also is expected to enable users to easily back up their pictures, movies, music and other files on a Microsoft storage service called SkyDrive, which will compete against Apple's iCloud.

The operating system's versatility means it can be used to power computer tablets, as well as traditional PCs.
Microsoft badly wants a piece of the tablet market that has been cutting into PC sales since Apple introduced the iPad two years ago.

Microsoft clearly envisions Windows 8 becoming the foundation for pure tablets, too. That's why it's developing a version of Windows 8 that can run on the more tablet-friendly microprocessor technology licensed by ARM Holdings. That version will complement the Windows 8 design that will run on the Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. chips that power most PCs.

The biggest question hanging over Windows 8 is whether the long wait for the software will leave Microsoft hopelessly behind Apple and Google in mobile computing.

Whatever headlines Microsoft grabs during Wednesday's preview are likely to be quickly overshadowed next week when Apple is expected to show off the third version of the iPad.

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