As I write this, Microsoft is in Las Vegas hawking a coming generation of consumer electronics products. It's Bill Gates' last chance to keynote the event as he's leaving the company, or at least his full time duties, this July. Understandably, Gates is getting nostalgic about his time at Microsoft. But I'm currently looking forward rather than looking back. And as I look ahead at what Microsoft has on tap for businesses in 2008, it's hard not to get a bit excited.

The seeds of this excitement were planted several years ago, in late 2003, when the company promised something it then called "the Longhorn wave," a planned concerted release of interrelated products that would include major new versions of Windows Server, the Windows client, Visual Studio, and SQL Server. These products represent most of Microsoft's major platforms, of course, and the company hadn't attempted releasing so many major updates simultaneously since Windows 95.

As everyone knows by now, reaching this concerted release hasn't been easy or quick. Some products, such as Windows and Windows Server, slipped again and again while others, such as Visual Studio and SQL Server, shipped major releases in the interim. But as we stand here in early 2008, we're finally in the midst of the Longhorn wave. Microsoft isn't using that moniker anymore, of course. And some of the products in this release wave, like Windows Vista and Office 2007, actually shipped more than a year ago. But no matter, as the end result is the same. Microsoft has never so thoroughly shaken up its major platforms as its doing right now. And three major pieces of this product wave will ship in early 2008.

You can expect a lot of Windows Server 2008 coverage this year. This Longhorn version of Windows Server is a major update, with a componentized, roles-based design and the first version of Microsoft's hypervisor-based virtualization solution, recently branded as Hyper-V. (I liked Windows Server Virtualization better, but suppose they had to at least make an attempt to be hip.) Windows 2008 is so important, it's hard to even know where to start: IIS 7. Server Manager. Windows PowerShell. Server Core. Read-Only Domain Controller. BitLocker. Network Access Protection. The list goes on and on.

Visual Studio 2008 is another huge release that shipped concurrently with the Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5 in November. As with the previous version of Visual Studio, Microsoft is making free Express versions of Visual Studio 2008 available to the public, so this product can meet the needs of any developer, from students and enthusiasts all the way up through enterprise architects and team members. This one is huge because it's the first version of Visual Studio that can really take advantage of Longhorn wave technologies like Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF), Windows Communication Foundation (WCF), Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), and Windows CardSpace. These technologies will eventually lead to new generations of applications, servers, and services.

And then there's SQL Server 2008, formerly code-named Katmai. This product will "launch" in February alongside Windows 2008 and Visual Studio 2008, but it's the furthest from completion: Microsoft expects to ship the product to customers sometime in the second quarter of 2008. As with other Longhorn wave products, there's a lot going on here, but forced to highlight just a few improvements, I will call out pervasive support of unstructured data, the LINQ framework for managed code access to business objects stored in the database, and scalability: With SQL Server 2008, Microsoft's database server can now work with multiple terabytes of data with no performance hit.

One last thing that's worth mentioning: In the case of each of these products, the pricing hasn't changed demonstrably since the previous-generation products. Windows 2008 licensing is virtually identical to that of its predecessor, while SQL Server 2008 is literally identical on an edition-by-edition basis. And although Visual Studio pricing is largely unchanged, Microsoft did ease up some licensing issues so that Visual Studio 2008 customers can build solutions with the Visual Studio SDK on non-Windows platforms and view the Visual Studio 2008 source code for debugging purposes. Not coincidentally, the company also released the source code for .NET Framework 3.5, also for debugging purposes.

Here's to a productive 2008.