Long-time readers may be familiar with my aversion to product "momentum" discussions, given my general focus on upcoming, future products and technologies. But with Windows client and server releases now on a reliable three year update schedule, and businesses finally starting to actually deploy a new Windows version instead of skipping an entire generation as they did with Windows Vista, maybe it's time to take stock of where we're at.

Last week, I spoke with Gavriella Schuster, the general manager of Windows product management at Microsoft about what the software giant is seeing in the market a year after the release of Windows 7. It was an interesting discussion, but when I got back home from what was essentially a ten-day trip through Redmond (PDC and meetings), Las Vegas (Windows Connections) and then New York City (Lync workshop) and had time to gather my thoughts, something obvious occurred to me: While it's pretty obvious that Windows 7 is in much better shape than its predecessor, Windows Vista, I figured I must have discussed the one-year anniversary of that release with Microsoft back in late 2007. It might be instructive to compare the two.

And sure enough, I found my notes from an on-campus meeting with Windows client from September 2007. At that time, Microsoft was prepping Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Windows Vista as quickly as they could in a bid to jumpstart business deployments. Microsoft was "realigning" in the post XP SP2 world, I was told, and was being more aggressive releasing individual hot-fixes over Windows Update, rather than waiting to deliver them via a service pack. This, too, was a response to the poor reception of Vista, when you think about it, as Microsoft was very eager to improve the OS as quickly as possible.

When Vista shipped there were just 250 logo'd applications, but more problematic, there were over 80 of what Microsoft calls "enterprise blockers," incompatible software applications required by key business customers that were preventing them from upgrading to Vista. Microsoft worked quickly to fix these problems--by October, there were over 2000 logo'd apps and all those enterprise blockers had been fixed. But it was too late. Vista had the stench of defeat about it, and businesses stayed away in droves, using excuse after excuse to explain why they were sticking with XP.

This won't shock anyone, but the mood at Microsoft this time around is completely different, and almost giddy. Customers of all kinds are excited about Windows 7, and in workplaces employees are actually demanding it. Based on research we've done at Windows IT Pro, and via Microsoft and its analyst group partners, businesses really are deploying Windows 7, and at an ever-increasing rate of speed. Comparing Windows 7 one year later to the situation with Vista is like night and day. There really is no comparison.

That said, most businesses are still in the planning stage of deployment, and there are plenty of related concerns that need to be addresses. In fact, many businesses are looking at this deployment cycle as a time to not just get Windows 7 out to employee desktops, but to also streamline their organizations, deploy more efficient technologies (like virtualization and Office 2010) where and when they make the most sense. The general vibe is that, yes, deployments are tough, but we might as well do it right this time so we are better positioned for the future.

That's a healthy attitude. According to Microsoft, there are three major outside factors that are weighing heavily in businesses' thoughts about Windows 7. The first is the consumerization of IT, which we've discussed several times this year alone. I see this as a potential problem, but Microsoft is embracing the reality of the situation and is turning it into a business opportunity. And that makes sense, because one of the things that employees are demanding, of course, is Windows 7. They use it at home, and going into work and using XP is like going back in time.

"This is a dramatic shift," Schuster told me. "Only six months ago, the CIOs I spoke with understood that users wanted something different but weren't willing to push in that direction. Today, they talk about users and user experience differently. They want to make it right for their users, move off of XP and onto Windows 7, because they know if they don't, users will simply do their own thing, and perhaps use insecure mechanisms, like their own PCs, to transport work data."

The second factor is cloud services. Microsoft doesn't get a lot of credit for this for some reason, but no technology firm is better poised to make the transition to cloud services than the software giant, which is now offering all of its major server products--Exchange, SharePoint, Communications/Lync, and so on--as hosted services, with management and configuration servers capabilities down the pike as well. But it's not just Microsoft's ability to take successful products and put them in the cloud that makes this so interesting: Microsoft, uniquely, can offer businesses a mix-and-match hybrid deployment model where some resources are kept on premise--for legal or regulatory reasons, or whatever--while others deployed as clouds services. And these two environments are not separate, but are instead federated, or connected together, so they can behave, and be managed like, a single cohesive infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the cloud today is where virtualization was a year or two ago. Businesses seem to understand they need to figure them out, start exploring what's out there and where, or how, they can save money. I think they're in for a pleasant surprise and, as mentioned previously, this just keeps getting better: By mid-2011, businesses will be able to manage PCs centrally from the cloud with Windows InTune as well.

"Everyone is asking about cloud services, what many still don't understand it," Schuster said. "Our guidance is to separate out the various desktop layers, start to build out the desktop architecture, and then think about what they can move into the cloud when or if they want to."

The third trend is desktop virtualization, and here again Microsoft offers unique and compelling solutions that can really simplify your infrastructure and save money. When Windows 7 first arrived, Microsoft's many desktop virtualization solutions--and really, there may be too many of them--confused businesses. The result was predictable: A lot of questions, but the wrong questions, mostly around what this all meant, and what the various solutions offered.

Today, the question in many quarters has changed, and is now focused around which desktop virtualization solution makes the most sense. The leading contenders are Application Virtualization, or App-V, and Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, or VDI. Both of these technologies provide a similar service from a high-level--that is, they centralize application deployment and management--but they do so in quite different ways. With App-V, you'll deploy PC desktops using traditional methods, but applications are centrally managed, virtualized, and pushed down to clients. With VDI, the entire desktop is virtualized and is pushed down to thin clients from a datacenter. Looked at another way, App-V puts the investment on the desktops, whereas VDI puts it on the server-side. Each addresses the same basic need, but each also targets specific customer types.

"Customers really get virtualization now and see the savings," Schuster told me, "and they're looking to see which solutions make the most sense for them. Desktop virtualization won't solve every problem, but it will help organizations move away from monolithic desktops that are more efficient and easily managed."

Microsoft says it's seeing some form of desktop virtualization in about 50 percent of Windows 7 deployments, which is pretty incredible given the confusion these solutions presented only a year ago. But this is all good news, because as businesses get more familiar with these technologies, they can virtualize more as needed, consolidate apps and app versions, and create a centralized, single management point for all of it.

Aside from these trends, Microsoft has a lot of data around the return on investment (ROI) of a typical Windows 7 deployment ($140 saving per PC per year on average; 131 percent ROI in just over 12 months) and individual case studies demonstrating how real customers like including the British Airport Authority, National Instruments, City of Stockholm, Baker Tilly, City of Miami, and Getronics. I can't speak to this data specifically, but it's there for the taking, and should provide some interesting ammo if you're somehow running into a human deployment blocker of your own. You can find out more about this data, and other Windows 7 deployment milestone information, on theĀ Windows Team Blog.