Partners Baffled By Microsoft's Mixed Messages On Free Office 365 Migrations Program

It's been about three weeks since Microsoft revealed its plan to offer free Office 365 email migrations to customers, but partners say they're still confused about what impact this move could have on their businesses.

Microsoft will start offering free "on-boarding" and Office 365 email migration services to customers in deals of 150 seats or more sometime this fall. It's part of a coming update to Office 365 Fast Track, a program that debuted last year aiming to speed Office 365 sales and deployments.

Partners who've built businesses around delivering Office 365 services see this as a potential incursion into their turf. And several told CRN Monday that they're baffled by the mixed messages they say they're getting from Microsoft about how the Office 365 Fast Track program will impact the channel.

[Related: Microsoft Exec Discusses Plan To Offer Customers Free Office 365 Migration Services]

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"Everyone in the field has their own interpretation of what this means, but the reality is, nobody knows jack," one disgruntled partner told CRN. "The stories are changing more than a meteorologist giving a weather forecast."

Some Microsoft representatives have told partners that the details of Office 365 Fast Track have been communicated incorrectly, both by Microsoft itself and by CRN, three partners familiar with the matter said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their business relationships.

A Microsoft spokesperson confirmed to CRN that its reporting on Office 365 Fast Track to date has been accurate.

Microsoft reps have also told partners Office 365 Fast Track is still in flux and could see changes to make it more palatable to the channel before it's rolled out, sources said.

Meanwhile, other partners who've spoken with Microsoft about Fast Track said they're under the impression that the program could go even further than Office 365 email migrations, possibly expanding at some point to include Microsoft performing hybrid migrations for customers.

We've reached out to Microsoft for comment on this point and will update if we hear back.

Partners suspect there's an internal conflict going on at Microsoft around the role partners should play in selling and deploying Office 365. Microsoft's Office division is in one corner, and its worldwide channel group is in the other, partners speculate.

"Microsoft wants customers to deploy Office 365. To date, they believe that customers haven’t been doing so quickly enough," one partner told CRN. "From what I can tell, the Microsoft Office Division believes their engineers can do a better job than partners -- and Microsoft Consulting Services -- in delivering Office 365 professional services."

NEXT: Why Partners Think Microsoft's Plan Won't Work

Microsoft says its free Office 365 migrations will be bare bones and that partners will still be needed to help customers with more complex needs. In an interview last month, Tanuj Bansal, Microsoft director of partner and channel Office marketing, said the goal is to help partners deliver "higher-value services."

Even if Microsoft sticks to basic email migrations, partners doubt whether it's going to be able to provide these services at scale. Sources told CRN last month that Microsoft is hiring between 250 and 600 engineers to provide the Office 365 services, and that some of these will serve in a call center capacity.

Some partners also question whether Microsoft will have the in-house expertise to handle problems when they arise.

"With Office 365 migrations, there’s always some nasty landmine sitting in the environment that'll bite you. For example, the remote wizard running tech will have neither the skills nor the onsite capability to get elbows deep into solving the problem,’ said Rand Morimoto, president of Oakland-based Microsoft partner Convergent Computing.

Morimoto isn’t overly worried about Microsoft’s Office 365 Fast Track program because his firm is already shifting toward different types of services. Once customers move to Office 365, there is no more migration business for the channel because Microsoft handles everything on its end, he said.

"Quite frankly, we don't expect to be doing many Office 365 migrations 12-plus months from now anyway," Morimoto said.

The way partners see it, if Microsoft's Office 365 Fast Track program is a success, the company's reliance on partners to reach its business goals is going to be greatly reduced.

On the other hand, if Microsoft runs into trouble with Office 365 migrations, and needs to fall back on the channel, it may get a frosty response from partners it has alienated.

"Any way you slice it, this is going to have a negative impact on partners -- even in the best case scenario," one partner said of the program. "At this point, we have accepted that this will be happening and are spending our time designing offers that complement and highlight the areas where the Microsoft offer will come up short."