The rumors turned out to be true. Speaking at CES today, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced the immediate release of the Windows 7 Home Premium beta to MSDN, TechBeta, and TechNet subscribers. But while only a select group of testers will get a firsthand look at the next major release of Windows today, the Microsoft executive revealed that the same release will be available to the general public starting Friday at

The new operating system, which first made an appearance in October and has recently seen its beta build leaked onto several torrent sites, is expected to be architecturally similar to Windows Vista but far more usable and overall faster on the same hardware. The company still isn't officially committing to a specific release date for Windows 7, though recent rumors of an upgrade program starting in July suggest that at the very least it should arrive in time for this year's holiday season - hopefully even earlier.