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Can Microsoft’s Windows 8 combat the iPad’s growing popularity among business users?

We’ve gotten a sense for what consumer apps will look like on Windows 8 through the consumer preview of the upcoming Microsoft operating system. But this week at Microsoft’s Convergence conference in Houston, the company and its partners are previewing their business-oriented apps in the style of the company’s new “Metro” user interface on Windows 8 tablets and desktop computers.

They include the preliminary concepts (above and below) for future versions of the company’s Dynamics business applications, including an immersive start screen that could be customized by each user. (Microsoft supplied the images to us. Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet first published them this morning.)

Also being shown at the conference is an “Ultimate Beer Ranger” enterprise app being developed for New Belgium Brewing — maker of Fat Tire Amber Ale and other craft beers — by Sonoma Partners, a software consultancy. Billed as the first Windows 8 tablet app for the enterprise, it’s designed for use by New Belgium reps in the field. (Click image for larger view.)

Kevin Turner, Microsoft’s chief operating officer, talked about the spread of the Metro UI during his keynote address this morning at the Convergence conference.

“Microsoft this year will be the first company in the planet to be able to have a consistent user experience from the smartphone to the tablet to the slate to the reader to the laptop to the rich client and to the television with our Metro UI.  And we know the power of getting that consistent user experience is something that our whole product portfolio is going to benefit from. This idea of embracing consumerization of IT, we couldn’t be more excited about it.”

Maybe they’re excited now, but that consumerization is also a big challenge for Microsoft.

The company’s big strength over the years has been marketing to IT managers, more than appealing to consumer tastes. In that way, the impact of consumer trends in corporations is one of the company’s biggest challenges right now, as exemplified by the growing popularity of the iPad among businesses.

Microsoft is betting that the familiarity of the Metro interface across everything from Windows Phone to Windows PCs to Xbox 360 will boost all of its businesses, leveraging that consumerization of IT.

The logic goes, if you like the way your Xbox Live dashboard or Windows 8 start screen works, maybe you’ll also want the same thing on your phone or business tablet.

One last note: Turner’s mention of Microsoft enabling that consistent user experience “this year” removes any doubt, if there was any left, that the company is aiming to release Windows 8 in 2012. No official date has been set.

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