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Partners Ponder Microsoft's Plans For Answer Desk

Microsoft's recently launched 24-hour support service has left some partners wondering whether the software maker could become a competitor.

Smaller Microsoft partners have become suspicious of the company's every move since the summer, when it said that only Microsoft and a select group of 20 partners would handle the billing for subscribers of Office 365, leaving other resellers with only a small commission check for referring customers. The suite of online applications, which includes the Office productivity suite, SharePoint and Exchange, is part of Microsoft's move to the cloud, which experts believe is how software services will be accessed in the future.

Microsoft stoked the distrust of small business by launching the Answer Desk service without the usual fanfare of press releases and marketing that accompany a new product. While the service today appears targeted at consumers and people with home offices, a company of Microsoft's size could easily expand its reach into small businesses. "It just makes you nervous," Dave Sobel, chief executive of Fairfax, Va.-based reseller Evolve Technologies, said Friday.

Microsoft declined to discuss Answer Desk. "We have no additional plans to share at this time; stay tuned for more information," a spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Microsoft's secrecy has left partners to speculate on their own about its motives. "I certainly hope Microsoft is not creating an offering to compete with their partners," Marc Harrison, president of Manalapan, N.J.-based Silicon East, said. "That's the bottom line for everybody."

Brad Kowerchuk, president of Canadian reseller Bralin Technology Solutions, was less concerned. "This is Microsoft being Microsoft, which is to say the reason they probably can't tell you what their strategy is, is because they haven't figured it out yet," he said.

While Kowerchuk doesn't see Answer Desk as a threat, he says many resellers believe Microsoft's terms for selling Office 365 is an attempt to get between them and their customers. To resellers, Microsoft is sending the message: "Microsoft wants partners for when it's convenient to Microsoft," Kowerchuk said.

With Office 365, resellers have to bring customers to Microsoft or its so-called syndication partners, such as Gulf Breeze, Fla.-based AppRiver. In return, they get a small percentage of the monthly billing.

While Office 365 is firmly in the SMB market, Answer Desk appears more suited for consumers. Prices range from roughly $50 to $100 an hour for improving a PC's performance, malware removal and help with using Office applications.

Microsoft may have felt a need to sell services directly to customers to compete with Apple, Sobel said. If that's true then Microsoft should just tell its partners. "When they launch something like this and they don't tell you what they're doing with it, it makes you really nervous," he says. "Because they one thing you can't deal with is when you don't know."

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