"I can't sell iPads. But I can make money if customers have iPads," said Opal at Peters & Associates, pointing to the opportunities to help customers manage mobile devices. "There's a whole industry that's growing around mobile management."
By including a keyboard, Microsoft is setting up the Surface tablets as an alternative to business laptop computers -- something Thorsell of Success Computer Consulting said the iPad is not. "You can't get an iPad to fully replace a laptop today," he said.
The Microsoft tablets could provide even bigger opportunities for solution providers to manage "the entire stack" of Microsoft systems, from mobile devices and desktops to data center systems, from a single point, he said.
Customers could use Surface tablets as an extension for their Windows desktop PCs, line-of-business applications and other Microsoft technology in their offices, said Rubin at WorkITsafe. The solution provider sells servers, desktop PCs and laptops -- but not tablet computers.
"There's value for our client base," Rubin said. "People on the road could work as if they are in the office. That's really where we hope this is going. I believe this would be a device people would add to their IT arsenal."
While some partners are optimistic they will eventually become a channel for Surface tablets, Thorsell isn't so sure. He sees Microsoft's silence about channel plans for the product as another indication that Microsoft might be reducing its dependence on the channel.
"They keep coming up with new ways for customers to go around partners and work directly with Microsoft," he said. He pointed to the year-old Office 365 cloud applications, which businesses can subscribe to directly from Microsoft, as another example. "It gives me the sense they are slowly eroding the partner's piece of the business without admitting it."
"But maybe that's just an industry shift we're going to have to adapt to," he lamented.
One thing is for sure: The Surface tablets and Microsoft's channel plans -- or lack of them -- will be a major topic of discussion at the upcoming Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto. "I can't wait for WPC," Thorsell said.
"I guarantee you we will hear about this ad nauseam at WPC," Opal said, predicting that CEO Steve Ballmer will have a Surface tablet with him on stage during his keynote.
The question is just what Ballmer will have to say to partners about it.
Chad Berndtson contributed to this story