Industry watchers have been speculating about the launch date of Microsoft's next generation Windows operating system - Vista - for some time. As the date keeps moving backwards it has become a standing joke in the industry - at least for Mac users. Now Microsoft has joined the fun and games. The company has launched a competition for users in Europe and the Middle East to guess the launch date, with prizes up for grabs if it's guessed correctly.

"The official launch date of the new operating system Windows Vista has not yet been set," according to the site. "When will the final product be launched? Enter your guess now and win an exclusive invitation to the international Vista launch event in the USA."

In addition to a first-prize trip for one person to spend three nights in a four-star hotel and attend the launch - the location of which has not been disclosed - Microsoft is offering second-, third- and fourth-prize winners a new Xbox 360, and fifth- through 10th-place winners an Xbox Core System.

Only legal residents of the UK and Pakistan, as well as the European countries of Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Switzerland who are 18 years of age or older have the chance to win, according to the site.

Windows Vista is a significant release for the software company, and Microsoft hopes that users who may have skipped updating to Windows XP will make the leap to Vista. In fact, Microsoft anticipates that 200 million new PCs with Vista will ship in the first 24 months the new Windows OS is available, Michael Sievert, corporate vice president, Windows Product Management & Marketing, said at a Merrill Lynch event last week.

Spreading the word

The contest is part of a larger program called the BetaExperience, which was launched last month as a way of giving users in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) regions as much information as possible about both Windows Vista and the next release of Office before they ship, according to a site about the campaign (

Windows Vista and the next version of Office, code-named Office 12, are expected to be available to customers toward the end of the year, according to Microsoft.

BetaExperience provides users in EMEA with early access to Windows Vista beta releases and with a newsletter providing information about new features of the OS and other exclusive data, according to the site.

Microsoft is expected to ship another pre-release of Windows Vista - the second in a three-part release of Beta 2 of the OS - as early as this week, according to published reports and bloggers that follow the company. Official word from Microsoft, however, is that the next interim release, called a Community Technology Preview, will come before the end of March.