7 Questions For Microsoft Channel Chief Allison Watson

Despite the current storm clouds gathered over the economy, Allison Watson, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Group, says there are plenty of opportunities for VARs to grow, as long as they stay focused on projects that improve energy efficiency, boost productivity, and drive down costs.

In a recent interview, Watson talked about partner opportunities around Windows 7, explained how the economic situation is shaping her conversations with VARs, and gave an update on how the channel is responding to Microsoft's rollout of unified communications.

Q: What opportunities will partners have around Windows 7?

Our main focus right now, after the Windows 7 code was released at the Professional Developer Conference, is to encourage partners to spend time with it. The main opportunity right now is that the migration to Vista is the best way to get to Windows 7. More important, it's about driving up productivity and driving down cost, and we're maintaining that the best way to Windows 7 is through Vista.

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Are you planning to do anything differently in terms of eliciting partner feedback in the development process for Windows 7?

Vista was the most widely deployed beta in Microsoft's history, and Windows 7 is even bigger. We've really worked hard inside the company on what we call the 'Last Mile' process of getting the product to market.

If we look back at Vista, there are two things we're focused on not allowing to happen again. First, was the product ready? Partners are a strong voice for us in telling us about this, and we listen. Our partners were telling us we weren't ready, so we're going to be very careful in terms of listening to what they tell us with Windows 7.

Second, we have to make sure all the other processes are ready. Meaning, is the code on time, is it easy for system builders to install and uninstall? We call this the Last Mile process, and it includes partners every step of the way, in terms of feedback, licensing readiness, and how we get code into partners' hands. That process has all been created in the last 12 months.

Are you seeing a fall-off in the number of Microsoft partners given the economic downturn?

We are actually seeing strong engagement in our Gold Certified and Certified levels of the Microsoft Partner Program, above projections. Our number of registered partners has fluctuated slightly, but we don't have evidence to suggest it's due to partners going out of business.

We are committed to working with our partners to help customers realize maximum value and efficiencies from their IT investments in this tough economic climate.

How is the current economic situation influencing your conversations with partners?

There are three main things that SMBs are doing right now to reduce cost: reducing travel, becoming more energy efficient, and driving cost out of IT spending and toward more revenue producing areas.

They're focusing investment on making employees more productive, in areas like CRM and improving data management. Business intelligence is another important area, because when revenues are pressured, companies need to know where to take action to drive up revenue.

Next: Unified Communications And The Channel

How is the unified communications rollout going in the channel?

The channel response to unified communications has been very positive. Since launching our unified communications platform last October, the number of partners that have earned a UC competency in the areas of instant messaging/presence, messaging and voice has more than doubled -- from 793 in 2007 to more than 2,000 in 2008.

We expect this strong response to continue as customers are realizing that unified communications is a way to cut costs in areas like business travel and telephony.

Salesforce.com recently mentioned the possibility of potential price war in the SaaS market. Does the current economic uncertainty help or hurt SaaS vendors?

We are seeing people taking a look at services faster than they would otherwise. But we haven't heard about a price war, and that's not a game we would want to play. We have a fairly well priced offering as it is.

Customers will look little more carefully than in the past, and perhaps, move sooner, especially with something like Business Productivity Online Services (Microsoft's set of Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communications Server, and LiveMeeting services).

Is Microsoft Finance seeing an uptick in the number of channel partners seeking resources?

We're definitely talking with partners about financing. Microsoft Financing has been fairly underutilized because financing has been easy to get. We want to make sure partners know available. It isn't just free financing, however. Companies have to qualify in order to receive it.

Financing options are available for hardware, software, and services. Partners have great opportunities now to leverage assets of the total deal bundle wrapped into the bundle. And we are seeing partners interested in leveraging that.