Next week, Microsoft hosts its annual Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans, the first time the software giant has returned to that city in a major way since the Katrina debacle (at least to my knowledge). On the face of things, the WPC doesn't sound like it would be a thrilling event per se--images of CEO Steve Ballmer bounding across the stage caterwauling "partners, partners, partners!" notwithstanding--but this show has always offered up some compelling info about Microsoft's upcoming products. This year, on the eve of WPC, however, I have some questions.

Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2
Microsoft previously announced that it would complete development of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 in July 2009, so it's likely that the company will reveal that milestone at the show. But numerous questions surround these products, even in the wake of last week's Windows 7 retail pricing announcement.

For example, will businesses be able to get access to these products electronically before the October 22, 2009 launch date? And if not, why? And what about MSDN and TechNet customers?

Indeed, the sheer number of questions swirling around Windows 7 pricing, availability, and various upgrade issues is astonishing, especially when you consider that Microsoft had months to prepare for this event. The company could really clarify things a lot better than it has.

Office 2010/Office Web Applications
Last year at the Professional Developers Conference, Microsoft announced that it would deliver a beta version of its upcoming Office Web Applications (using the now-overloaded OWA acronym, with due respect to Outlook Web Access) by the end of 2008. Now 2009 is nearly half over, and it still hasn't happened.

We can expect a lot of Office 2010 pomp and circumstance at WPC next week, including the release of the previously announced Office 2010 Tech Preview (which leaked to the web over a month ago, by the way). But what about OWA?

When you consider that Microsoft's future will largely be cloud- and services-based, OWA is arguably even more important than the traditional Office productivity suite. (And really, beyond adding the Ribbon to everything, where does Microsoft go next with Office anyway?) What's going on with OWA?

Windows Mobile
With RIM's BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone pretty much dominating the business- and consumer-oriented smart phone markets, respectively, in the US, where does this leave Windows Mobile? Microsoft will release Windows Mobile 6.5 this fall via hardware partners and wireless carriers, but even the software giant has admitted that it's an interim release and that its full-featured response to iPhone--presumably Windows Mobile 7.0--won't ship until 2010 at the earliest.

I think it's appropriate--even responsible--to ask: Has this ship sailed? Is it time to forget about Windows Mobile? And if not, should Microsoft merge the desktop Windows and Windows Mobile codebases (as Apple essentially does with Mac OS X and the iPhone)?

Windows Azure
And let's not forget the cloud. Microsoft's been pretty quiet about Windows Azure lately, but what about Azure pricing and licensing?

And when will the initial "shipping" version of Azure hit, really? And what's the Azure Service Level Agreement (SLA) going to look like? When should customers choose hosted applications and services over self-hosting? And how does Azure fit into the overall Windows Server strategy going forward?

Broader Questions
Beyond specific product questions, let's not forget that the WPC is about Microsoft's partners. And the one big thing that's changed in the past year is that Microsoft is moving into businesses that it had previously left solely to its partners.

The biggest obvious example is Microsoft Online Services, through which the software giant hosts Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communications, and Office Live Meeting for its customers, but there are others. With Microsoft having to expand ever sideways to find new revenue models, how will this impact its relationships with the partners that used to rely on these revenue models for themselves?

Can these companies afford to both cooperate and compete with Microsoft? Do they just get the leftovers, or is Microsoft really offering compelling new business opportunities? If I were a Microsoft partner, that's the question I'd really like to see the company answer next week.