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Microsoft Eyeing Invitation-Only Program For Next Phase Of Surface Distribution

Microsoft is loosening its tight grip on Surface resellers and will soon expand the number of VARs who can resell the tablets.

The software giant is talking with key distributors about the selection process for the authorized program for Surface, sources said. They said the talks center on criteria for selling Surface in markets ranging from education to public sector, and the small and midsize business (SMB) market, sources said.

"Microsoft is going to expand Surface distribution, but it is not going to be open to everybody," said a source close to the company, who did not want to be identified. "Microsoft wants an authorized channel in order to assure the best partner and customer experience. The criteria on who is going to be invited to participate is being worked on now. It is going to be by invitation only."

[Related: VARs To Microsoft: 'Come Talk To Us' About Surface 2 ]

Sources said new Microsoft Corporate Vice President of the Worldwide Partner Group Phil Sorgen and new General Manager of U.S. Channel Sales Eric Martorano are both anxious to expand Surface distribution.

"The voices of channel partners who want to carry Surface are being heard," said one source. "They are going to do the right thing. They want to make sure a good cross section of the channel from VARs to ISVs [Independent Software Vendors] and SIs [Systems Integrators] get behind Surface."

The company is currently working on the time line for Surface expansion, sources said. Microsoft officials declined to comment.

Distributor Synnex told CRN that it believes Microsoft is laying the groundwork to soon open up its channel program to VARs here in the U.S. "Microsoft just wants to get it right," said Rob Moyer, vice president of Synnex's Microsoft global business unit. "Their plan is to systematically open it up to longtime Microsoft partners," he said.

For SHI International in Somerset, N.J., one of a few resellers authorized to sell Surface, the Microsoft tablets have sold surprisingly well. According to Ed McNamara, director of marketing for SHI, Surface outsold Android tablets in September, but not Apple. McNamara credits a big sales win with a Texas school district for Surface's success.

"Customers are skeptical at first, but as soon as they see how Surface can sync-up nice with a back-end network and Office 365, they give Surface a second look," McNamara said.

McNamara and Moyer both agreed that Apple may have a first-to-market advantage over Microsoft, but that Surface Pro 2 -- with improved battery life and refined Windows 8.1 software -- is a more compelling solution for the enterprise.

"VARs want Microsoft to succeed," McNamara said. "People have built their business around Microsoft." Apple and Android tablets, Moyer added, have the edge now, but doubt they can win in the long run without better ties to back-end security, licensing programs and network infrastructure that Microsoft does.

CRN Senior Editor Tom Spring Contributed to this report.


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