Microsoft Toyed With Changes To PAC Makeup

For a decade, the software giant has hosted a series of PACs in various technology areas to glean solution provider feedback on product and channel strategies.

Microsoft now has 15 core PACs, with membership ranging from a dozen to 25 members each. The 2004 lineup includes PACs for E-business (or business process integration); Microsoft Business Solutions; business intelligence; ISVs; infrastructure; .Net market development; outsourcing; collaboration and communication; enterprise project management; and wireless mobility. And there are geography-based PACs for the United States, Europe Middle East and Africa (EMEA) regions and Asia.

The PACs, along with several Customer Advisory Boards, are intended to help Microsoft scope out product plans and to get and give feedback. Quarterly PAC meetings, which are being held this week, are typically held under tight non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

A Microsoft spokesman said no wholesale changes to the PAC structure were ever on the table. "While there was some consideration around possibly combining partners and customers in some niche areas [such as the relatively new RFID Council"], Microsoft has never considered modifying the make-up of its 15 core PACs," he said.

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Partners dispute that contention. "The plan was absolutely to combine PACs and customer advisory boards," said an East coast VAR who requested anonymity. "I think they genuinely believed there was synergy of getting both points of view in the same room." A side-benefit, he and others noted, would be reduced costs.

Another East coast partner blasted the very idea of adding customers to PACs. "It would stink. It would dilute the partners' voice to Microsoft." Another laughed at the notion. "I guess it could be a good thing, but I feel sorry for any customer in there--he'll be besieged by pitches from the partners," said a member of two of the PACs from the mid-Atlantic region.

Whatever Microsoft's intentions were and whether it ends up tweaking its council make-up, some solution providers now question the value of PAC membership. Members typically fly themselves in for the meetings and assume all related expenses. In return they get early-access to Microsoft product and channel road maps and, in the words of one ISV partner, "some nice dinners and good wine."

Wining and dining may no longer be enough. "How do you monetize the investment in that relationship? You meet quarterly, you jump through Microsoft's hoops--but is it worth it? Do you see a return?" asked a third solution provider based on the East coast.

Real return on that PAC investment is harder to find in an era of slower IT spending. In the heady days of the boom, a partner able to inform customers early about product plans could actually accelerate deployment. But now slower spending cycles overall--and specifically Microsoft's inability to meet its own technology delivery deadlines--are eroding those advantages.

In fact, one solution provider said early access to information that turns out to be erroneous can actually hurt a VAR or integrator trying to keep his customers well informed. "The first-mover advantage has largely disappeared. When schedules slip, what advantage have you really gained [from early access to information]," he asked.

Others argue that it is always good to glean early insight into Microsoft's intentions even if the plans get held up or shift. "I think it's better to know what they're thinking, and if you're smart you take all that's presented but treat it more like a trial balloon," said one New Jersey-based VAR.

A Gulf-state VAR concurred: "I'd rather have more information [from them] than less," he said.