In the coming days, weeks, and months, the Microsoft community will be consumed by a widening deluge of information about Windows 7, the successor to Windows Vista. Now, I know what you're thinking: Most of you haven't even deployed Vista yet, and many of you are still horrified at the thought of doing so. Is it too soon to begin a discussion of Windows 7?

In some ways, I don't think so. One of the problems with Vista was that when the OS first launched in November 2006--yes, it was almost exactly two years ago--Microsoft didn't have much of a story to tell businesses. Sure, Vista had BitLocker drive encryption. And it had ... well, what else did it have? Most of the Vista story at launch surrounded the consumer-oriented improvements, not business advances.

Today, the Vista picture for businesses is much brighter. Microsoft's deployment technologies have matured, and the company now offers an enticing and ever-growing family of optimized desktop tools that are slowly migrating us all to virtualized compatibility solutions such as Application Virtualization 4.5 (now available) and Kidaro (coming soon). SP1 is out, and aside from the weird psychological barrier that all Microsoft SP1 releases seem to cross, this release also brings with it performance, stability, reliability, and compatibility improvements. In benchmark after benchmark, Vista continues to perform well against Windows XP on the same hardware. The barriers are just coming down.

But what about Windows 7? Depending on who you talk to, you should wait for Windows 7 before moving off of XP or you should migrate to Vista first. For an OS that isn't in the hands of more than a few of Microsoft's closest partners, there seems to be a lot of conflicting opinions out there.

Here's what we do know. Windows 7 can and should be considered Vista Release 2 (R2). In fact, I think Microsoft should market the business versions of the OS under that very name. Beginning with the release of Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008, Microsoft no longer forks its Windows code tree for new releases. So the next versions of Windows client (7), Windows Server (2008 R2), and Windows Home Server (WHS) will all be based from exactly the same code. Microsoft will simply combine the right components to create the Windows version it wants and ship it. It's a much simpler system than before.

In fact, at least one Microsoftie, speaking off the record during my trip to Redmond last week, explained that Windows 7, in many ways, would simply be Vista SP2. From a compatibility standpoint, all the work Microsoft is doing will show up in Vista first and will work identically in Windows 7. It's not changing the underlying platform at all, so if a hardware device or software application works on Vista, it will work fine on 7 as well.

One thing that is changing is Microsoft's approach to product bundling. I'm sure everyone is at least passingly familiar with the fact that the software giant has gotten into trouble with antitrust regulators around the globe for bundling applications into Windows. So with Windows 7, many bundled apps--such as Windows Mail, Movie Maker, and Photo Gallery--are being yanked out of the OS and will be made available as separate free downloads from Windows Live. This change has two nice side effects. One, it keeps Windows lean and mean, and allows those who are not interested in such fluff to keep those bits--and their various problems and resulting updates--off their PCs. Second, it allows Microsoft to update these applications much more frequently. Windows Live applications can be updated monthly, quarterly, or yearly, instead of every two-to-four-years when they're part of Windows. (And for antitrust enthusiasts, let's face it, less bundling means less oversight.)

We'll get our first taste of Windows 7 at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in late October, when Microsoft will ship a pre-beta version of the OS to attendees. And rumors place the Beta 1 release before the end of the year. I do know this: More than one person told me that Windows 7, in its current form, is in far better shape than was Vista Beta 1 three long years ago. In fact, they're not even comparable from a usability standpoint. That alone makes Windows 7--and its widely anticipated Q1 2010 release date--all the more interesting. With Vista, there was never really a sense that it was ever going to be ready.

So is it too soon to think about Windows 7? Let me know what you think. Certainly, I'm curious about what Microsoft is planning for its key customer demographics this time around, and I'll be paying particularly close attention to its plans for businesses. Soon, I hope, we'll know if there's enough meat there to get excited about.