Tablet Tease: Microsoft Surface Channel Debut Bypasses Bulk of Partners

The software giant Monday disclosed the launch of its Microsoft Devices Program, a two-tier IT channel effort that enables a select group of Microsoft distributor and reseller partners to sell Surface tablets. Previously, Microsoft restricted the sale of Surface devices to its own online and retail stores, plus select retail partners such as Best Buy, which caused significant frustration with Microsoft channel partners.

But IT channel sales of the Surface devices still will be restricted. According to a blog post from Jenni Flinders, vice president of Microsoft's U.S. Partner Group, the new Microsoft Devices Program will only make Surface products available to a specific group of "device authorized commercial resellers" as well as to a small group of distribution partners who can only sell Surface to those authorized partners. The distributors include Ingram Micro, Tech Data and Synnex.

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Microsoft's list of authorized partners currently features just 10 companies, all of which are Microsoft Large Account Resellers (LARs): CDW, CompuCom Systems, En Pointe Technologies, Insight Enterprises, PC Connection, PCM, Softchoice, Softmart, SHI International and Zones. As a result, the distributors will be limited to providing Surface products to only those 10 authorized resellers.

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Microsoft said it will authorize additional distribution and reseller partners over the next few months. In addition, Microsoft said authorized resellers will be able to sell Microsoft's extended warranty and accidental damage coverage with Surface devices.

"We look forward to working closely with our Microsoft Devices Program partners to better serve their commercial customers," Flinders wrote. "As we move quickly into future phases of this program, we will begin activating more partners to sell Microsoft devices."

While the change in Microsoft's Surface strategy is a welcome development for the channel, solution providers still will have to wait for approval to sell Surface tablets under the Microsoft Devices Program. The effort has some solution providers confused; Microsoft has more than 120,000 solution providers in North America but hardly any of them will be able to sell the product.

Bob Venero, CEO of Future Tech, a Holbrook, N.Y.-based Microsoft partner, called the decision "another slap in the face to true solution providers" in favor of Microsoft's LAR partners.

"This is completely a volume play once again versus a quality and value play," said Venero. "Microsoft's channel strategy is completely about girth. It's all about satisfying OEMs and LARs. Why? Because of girth. Then they'll see what crumbs can fall to solution providers who are the backbone of Microsoft's solution empire."

Future Tech has found big sales opportunities for tablets. The company recently won a deal to deploy 2,500 iPads to pilots for JetBlue. That JetBlue deal was supported by Brian Hansen, a longtime Future Tech account manager who has been supporting JetBlue for a decade.

The JetBlue deal is only the tip of the iceberg for Future Tech, which is selling at least 1,000 tablets a month with partners like Apple, Samsung and Lenovo.

Just one week ago, Future Tech had an opportunity to sell 350 Surface Pro tablets, but convinced the customer to go in "another direction and buy Samsung Windows-based tablets because we didn't have" the ability to sell or support Surface Pro, said Venero.

Venero, who has met with both Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman and Dell CEO Michael Dell regarding enterprise account strategies, said he has reached out several times to discuss the Surface distribution issue with Microsoft top executives to no avail. As a result, Microsoft has put his company in a position where it competes with Microsoft, he said.

"I would love to discuss this with someone from Microsoft," Venero said, "if only they would engage with us."