For all the talk about cloud computing this past year--and believe me, I'm a huge proponent of this emerging computing trend--as I look forward to 2009, the biggest product I see impacting IT is in fact the most classic Microsoft product of all, Windows. More specifically, I'm referring to Windows 7, which in 2009 will appear in both client and server form, the latter branded as Windows Server 2008 R2. These products will together define what kind of year the software giant and its customers will have. And I have to tell you, I think they're both going to be excellent products, and ones that will finally signal the death knell to their aging predecessors, Windows XP and 2003.

Windows 7 Beta

The New Year begins with the first public beta of Windows 7. This is the time for businesses of all sizes to begin evaluating this release, because I believe that Microsoft intends to ship only one major beta version of the product, followed by a single release candidate, and then the final version. If this happens as expected, Microsoft will be able to finalize Windows 7 in April and then ship it to customers by mid-year at the latest. Unlike Vista, that means you're not going to have a lot of time to get ready.

Speaking of Vista, your first impression of Windows 7 will vary wildly, depending on your opinions about Vista. It looks and acts a lot like Vista, and that can be off-putting. But you don't have to look too far to see minor but important user interface tweaks. I've been using an early version of the official beta since last week, and it's pretty clear that no corner of this OS has been left untouched. The taskbar, Start Menu, tray notification area, desktop, and Windows Explorer have all been given much-needed improvements.

As for performance, I think Microsoft is going to surprise people. And if you're working for an enterprise that hasn't upgraded to Vista because it won't run acceptably on your existing PCs, you'll want to look again at Windows 7. It may look like Vista, but it boots and runs appreciably faster than its predecessor, and can even run acceptably on low-end netbook-class machines, something that is simply impossible with Vista. (My only performance complaint regards file copies, which often work as slowly as they do in Vista, especially network-based file copies.)

The Windows 7 Public Beta Arrives

Late last week, Microsoft released its one and only beta version of Windows 7 to the public, ushering in a several month period of unprecedented feedback. Originally, Microsoft had planned to let only the first 2.5 million downloaders access the beta, but after capacity snafus temporarily paused downloads for a few hours on late Friday, the company made an unexpected announcement: It would allow anyone who wanted the Windows 7 beta to access the beta for two weeks, ending January 24, 2009.

With that in mind, I'm recommending that you give it a shot. Windows 7 is everything that was right about Windows Vista--the security, the capabilities and, beginning with SP1, the compatibility--but it's also fixed many of Vista's shortcomings. There are many surprises awaiting you in Windows 7. A few that I feel are worth calling out include:

A completely tweaked UI. Microsoft has literally rethought every single UI piece in Windows 7 and made small but meaningful improvements where needed. Chief among these are the new Taskbar, which now combines running window management with application shortcuts; the melding of gadgets into the Sidebar; and the excellent new Aero Snaps window management features. Power users, fear not: Keyboard shortcuts still abound, including both old favorites and new ones, like WinKey + Space, which triggers Aero Peek (show desktop).

Bitlocker To Go. Since releasing the original version of its BitLocker full-drive encryption technology in Windows Vista, Microsoft has upgraded this technology several times, adding support for non-system drives, simpler configuration, and other features. In Windows 7, BitLocker moves to the final frontier, removal storage, including USB memory keys and hard drives. Now your data will be safe even when it's not in the office.

A sleeker, smaller system. In a startling reversal from previous Windows versions, Windows 7 actually includes fewer bundled applications than its predecessors. Gone are such things as Mail, Calendar, Contacts, MovieMaker, Messenger, and Photo Gallery, among others. Those that do need these applications can download the free new Windows Live Essentials suite. But those that don't no longer need to support these applications.

Better out of box compatibility. Unlike Windows Vista, which initially broke compatibility with a generation of software applications and hardware devices because of its new security model, Windows 7 promises identical compatibility with Vista (with SP2, due around the same time as Windows 7). That means that Windows 7 will be exactly as compatible as its predecessor the day its released, a huge improvement over previous Windows versions.

Works on low-end hardware. Unlike Vista, Windows 7 runs just fine on low-end Atom-based netbook computers with just 1 GB of RAM. (It will not, however, resuscitate truly ancient computers: In my tests on an Ultra-Mobile PC utilizing an 800 MHz Celeron chip, Windows 7 failed as miserably as did Vista.)

ReadyBoost improvements. And speaking of better performance, if you really do need to bump up a low-end machine, Windows 7 now supports multiple ReadyBoost devices (where Vista supported just one). And you can use different devices types now, too: Where Vista supported just USB memory devices, Windows 7 also supports Secure Digital (SD) memory cards and other internal flash devices, and over 4 GB of storage.

Superior power management. One advantage that users of Apple Macs have always enjoyed is the superior power management capabilities of those systems. This time around, Microsoft joins the top tier as well: Windows 7 is very aggressive about power management and you'll typically see a improvement battery life (as well as faster boot times) as a result. There are numerous reasons for these gains, but for end users, the difference will surface in the form of the power management applet, which offers only "balanced" and "power saver" power profiles by default: If you're looking for the wasteful (and largely pointless) "high performance" plan, you'll have to dive deep into the UI. And IT admins can enforce power profiles through policies.

Recovery improvements. If Windows 7 won't boot, users won't have to turn to the Setup DVD or manually install recovery tools. That's because Windows 7 installs them by default and runs them automatically when something goes wrong. Nice.

There's a lot more, but you've got some installing to do. Let me know what you think about the Windows 7 beta: I'm really excited about it, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised as well.

Windows Server 2008 R2

Microsoft is making quite an effort to push a "better together" story with Windows 7 and Server 08 R2, but these products won't make the same splash as did Windows 2000 Professional and Server, the last Windows versions to be co-developed. That's not Microsoft's fault, per se, as the Windows platform doesn't require the same deep level of improvements that was needed back then. But if the company is hoping to inspire businesses to co-deploy both Windows 7 and Server 08 R2, it's going to have to do better than Direct Access, Branch Cache, and BitLocker To Go.

That said, R2 is still a pretty impressive product, but then we've discussed that at length already in my Windows Server 2008 R2 Preview. But here's some news you probably haven't heard yet: Microsoft will be selling a new R2 version, called Windows Foundation Server, that it will target at emerging markets and, if it's smart, small businesses and enthusiasts. Foundation Server will support all the key Windows Server roles except for Hyper-V virtualization, and it will reportedly sell for just $200. Now that's what I call power to the people.

This article was adapted from my commentaries in the December 30, 2008 and January 13, 2009 issues of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul