Cool Technology, Cold Shoulder? Microsoft Partners Want A Piece Of The Surface Tablet Action

Solution providers love Microsoft's new Surface tablet computer. They praise its sleek design and innovative keyboard. They see a product that could compete against Apple's iPad tablet among business customers. And, they see an opportunity to build services around the new device.

Now if only Microsoft would let them sell it.

Microsoft debuted the tablets, Surface for Windows 8 Pro and Surface for Windows RT, in a splashy press event in Los Angeles Monday that had industry pundits guessing for days beforehand what Microsoft was up to.

[Related: Head-to-Head: Microsoft Surface Vs. Apple iPad ]

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But in a perplexing move, Microsoft only said it would sell the tablets through its retail stores in the U.S. and through select online Microsoft stores. The company, which has always trumpeted the competitive advantages provided by its extensive partner network, has said nothing about a role for the channel in selling the Surface tablets.

Since Monday, Microsoft executives and spokespersons contacted by CRN have said they have no information about the company's channel plans for the tablet computers.

Some channel partners find that hard to believe.

"It wouldn't make sense for [Microsoft] to go retail-only," said Ronnie Parisella, information technology director at Power Consulting Group, a New York-based solution provider that partners with Microsoft. "Their corporate accounts are their bread and butter."

"It bums me out that I apparently won't be able to sell it," said Erik Thorsell, president of Success Computer Consulting, a Minneapolis-based Microsoft partner. It limits our ability to deliver a complete solution."

"My advice to Microsoft on plans for the channel is NOT to follow Apple's lead [of] prohibiting partners from reselling the product or limiting the purchase of Surface to only Microsoft stores or Microsoft online," said Lyf Wildenberg, president and co-founder of Mytech Partners, a Roseville, Minn.-based solution provider, in an email interview.

"Microsoft needs to make Surface available to its vast partner system via the commonly recognized distribution systems," Wildenberg said. "VARs like Mytech Partners have a tremendous amount of influence over what end-user devices get introduced into a business environment. Microsoft's best move is to enable VARs [and] partners to be part of the process."

NEXT: Partners Give A Thumbs-Up For The Surface Tablet Technology

Solution providers almost universally praise the Surface tablets themselves.

"I love it. I think it's a home run," Success Computer’s Thorsell said. "It's sexy enough to attract the bring-your-own-device crowd, yet functional enough for business users. Finally, we're looking at an alternative to the iPad for business."

"It definitely has some coolness, which is needed," said Steve Rubin, president of WorkITsafe, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based managed solution provider and Microsoft small business specialist. "From what I've seen, it's pretty exciting." He specifically cited the Surface tablet's innovative Touch Cover keyboard, noting that he hears from business customers who use tablets that they'd like to add a keyboard to the touchscreen devices.

By entering the tablet space, Microsoft is putting pressure on other computing hardware vendors to make better products, said Bob Dutkowsky, CEO of distributor Tech Data. "From where we sit it looks like a fascinating platform. Hardware vendors will have to innovate more aggressively to keep up. That's good for distribution."

Several solution providers said the price Microsoft ultimately sets for the tablets will be a factor in how competitive it is. "I don't know how much these things are going to cost," said Ric Opal, vice president at Peters & Associates, a Gold-level Microsoft partner based in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

Microsoft, which will announce pricing closer to the tablets' ship date, has only said their price tags are "expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC."

Partners also universally see opportunities to work with the Surface tablets.

Power Consulting Group resells PCs from Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo, as well as some Apple iPad tablets. Parisella said he would sell the Surface tablets if given the opportunity. And he finds it hard to believe Microsoft won't make the product available to channel partners through distributors. "Microsoft is still selling everything they have through distributors," he said.

Dutkowsky at Tech Data, which sold more than $1 billion in tablet computers last year, is thinking along the same lines.

"The more tablets that come into the market from a vendor with the strength and breadth of a Microsoft, the better we are. I can't tell you how many times I get a call from a VAR who says, 'My customer wants me to bid several tablets.' It's obvious what one of them is going to be, but after that, we have Android solutions and a BlackBerry solution we can point to. Now we're going to have a Windows solution we can point to."

Dutkowsky was quick to note that Microsoft hasn't said anything to Tech Data about how -- or if -- it plans to distribute the Surface product through the channel. "We didn't know about it before they announced it," he said. "We'll make our presentations to Microsoft and hope we get access to selling it, because there's a lot we can do to help Microsoft."

NEXT: Surface Tablets And The Channel Will Be A Hot Topic At WPC

"I can't sell iPads. But I can make money if customers have iPads," said Opal at Peters & Associates, pointing to the opportunities to help customers manage mobile devices. "There's a whole industry that's growing around mobile management."

By including a keyboard, Microsoft is setting up the Surface tablets as an alternative to business laptop computers -- something Thorsell of Success Computer Consulting said the iPad is not. "You can't get an iPad to fully replace a laptop today," he said.

The Microsoft tablets could provide even bigger opportunities for solution providers to manage "the entire stack" of Microsoft systems, from mobile devices and desktops to data center systems, from a single point, he said.

Customers could use Surface tablets as an extension for their Windows desktop PCs, line-of-business applications and other Microsoft technology in their offices, said Rubin at WorkITsafe. The solution provider sells servers, desktop PCs and laptops -- but not tablet computers.

"There's value for our client base," Rubin said. "People on the road could work as if they are in the office. That's really where we hope this is going. I believe this would be a device people would add to their IT arsenal."

While some partners are optimistic they will eventually become a channel for Surface tablets, Thorsell isn't so sure. He sees Microsoft's silence about channel plans for the product as another indication that Microsoft might be reducing its dependence on the channel.

"They keep coming up with new ways for customers to go around partners and work directly with Microsoft," he said. He pointed to the year-old Office 365 cloud applications, which businesses can subscribe to directly from Microsoft, as another example. "It gives me the sense they are slowly eroding the partner's piece of the business without admitting it."

"But maybe that's just an industry shift we're going to have to adapt to," he lamented.

One thing is for sure: The Surface tablets and Microsoft's channel plans -- or lack of them -- will be a major topic of discussion at the upcoming Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto. "I can't wait for WPC," Thorsell said.

"I guarantee you we will hear about this ad nauseam at WPC," Opal said, predicting that CEO Steve Ballmer will have a Surface tablet with him on stage during his keynote.

The question is just what Ballmer will have to say to partners about it.

Chad Berndtson contributed to this story