Microsoft Partner Program Update

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Got a call from Microsoft yesterday. Seems the channel executive management team was eager to get in front of any negative news surrounding the implementation of one of the largest channel reorganizations in the company's history.

Microsoft channel chief Allison Watson, our 2004 Channel Executive of the Year, called with an update about how things were going one year after the Redmond, Wash., software giant first outlined its plans, and six months after many Microsoft partners began the process of re-enrolling in the official Microsoft Partner Program. She was literally bubbling with enthusiasm over several milestones.

But there were problems to own up to as well: Seems the online tool that partners began using in April to enroll in the program has a lousy interface, which makes it hard to use properly. Suffice to say, there's frustration in the ranks, Watson concedes. But in true Microsoft fashion, the company has a bright guy [or gal] trying to fix the problem. How bad is it? Well, in one area you are supposed to enter three customer references. Trouble is, after you enter the first, there's no intuitive way to enter the second and the third. Not a crisis, but troublesome.

Issues aside, there are some interesting milestones to report. For starters, something very interesting is happening in the far reaches of the Microsoft channel, where loosely affiliated allies are becoming Microsoft converts. Consider the following: Watson says as many as 200,000 companies are signing up for the Microsoft Partner Program in some capacity, most, obviously, as "registered members," the lowest of the three levels. (The other two are Certified and Gold Certified.)

When I asked who, exactly, these companies are, Watson confirmed they are essentially the value-added providers, or VAPs, that Paul Bazley (remember Paul?) worked so hard to get enrolled in some fashion in Microsoft's various programs du jour in the late 1990s. What's intriguing about these companies is their decision to affiliate in some capacity with Microsoft, because VARBusiness' own research reveals that as many as 40 percent of the solution providers who sell products never actually wind up joining a vendor program in some fashion. That makes it very tough to communicate, reward and motivate these companies. Microsoft's rivals should take note of that number.

Some others to take into account: Of the 200,000 or so who have signed up in some fashion with Microsoft, a healthy number have declared their areas of interest. Fifteen percent say they are interested in network infrastructure, while another 13 percent say security is their prime focus. (Remember: Microsoft has 11 areas of competency that solution providers can choose, including advanced infrastructure, business intelligence, information worker, integrated e-business, Microsoft business solutions, network infrastructure, security, ISV software, learning solutions, OEM hardware and licensing.)

In all, Microsoft has some 30,000 Gold and Certified partners worldwide, 22,000 of whom have already taken a stab at trying to classify themselves in some fashion. Originally, Microsoft hoped that half would choose to select a competency. But already, two-thirds have. Golds are going for as many as six, but most are choosing two to three. Certified players typically chose one or two areas of expertise. Theoretically, that should make room for everybody in the channel as partners self select their areas of expertise. It doesn't always work that way, but that's the theory anyway.

Last, Microsoft awaits the full availability of a channel-builder tool, due Jan. 10, which will help ISVs and other partners build ecosystems of their own.

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