Partner conferences are usually a time of peppy pronouncements from company executives, product puffery and the glad-handing of VARs.

When the annual Microsoft worldwide partner conference opens in Toronto on Sunday there will be some

of that – including cheers from the Canadians, who were supposed to host the event last summer. It had to be switched to New Orleans because the SARs scare here cut into bookings.

But this year’s event may be different: It’s the first conference since the software giant announced a shake-up of its partner program, and according to one industry analyst Microsoft executives will be listening closely to the expected 5,000 partners expected to attend.

“”Their main concern will be testing the temperature of partners and seeing how the new program is going,”” said Paul DeGroot of Directions On Microsoft.

Microsoft Business Solutions VARs – especially resellers of Navision and Great Plains applications – “”are nervous about how it’s going to work,”” he warned.

Among them is Michael Kulik, president of Digital Vantage Point of Markham, Ont., whose company builds Navision add-on solutions.

“”It’s not quite clear to me how the competency program works,”” he said in an interview.

In revamping the partner program, Microsoft’s goal is to bring dozens of schemes covering system integrators, consultants, ISVs, resellers and training centres under one roof.

Among the problems, DeGroot noted in a recent report, was that the Certified Partners program didn’t reach thousands of small VARs who lacked the required certification or didn’t want to pay to get it. Some of those who did sign up exaggerated their skills in the partner database. Other programs lacked cohesion and created unhappiness among firms that wanted to work more closely with Microsoft, the report said, but were mystified about how to do it.

The new points-based Microsoft Partners Program is supposed to offer clear guidelines for measuring and rewarding partner competence with specific solutions, partner levels that distinguish the most experienced and capable partners from others and clear rules about how partners can gain additional benefits by working with Microsoft.

While it officially started in January only nine competencies have been defined, with more still to come.

By organizing its partners around specific competencies (organizations can have multiple competencies), Microsoft can offer each partner benefits specifically designed for their business, DeGroot wrote.

The competencies also give partners a clear way to differentiate themselves from competitors. In the new program, an organization can no longer claim formal competence in a particular solution area unless its staff has met specific training requirements and the company has satisfactorily deployed solutions with real customers.

“”In general I’m very impressed with the program,”” said DeGroot.

But he noted it also brings together partners who sell traditional Microsoft products with those selling the company’s recently acquired Great Plains and Navision business applications.

“”The fear for them is the new program will attract a lot of partners who have not qualified or been interested in that business,”” said DeGroot. “”One of the attractions of their programs is that they were fairly exclusive: High fees and stiff certification requirements meant you pretty much had the territory to yourself.””

But to the concern of some, Microsoft has big ambitions. While the old Certified Partner program had about 35,000 members, it projects that the new program could total 45,000 Certified and Gold Certified partners and 100,000 Registered partners by next summer, DeGroot says.

Kulik, for one, wants to be reassured at the conference that the new program won’t end up hurting his company, which specializes in e-commerce integration.

“”I want to hear Microsoft’s objective is strictly efficiency for the channel and themselves, to encourage specialization and develop niche skills, and to direct opportunities to those who work with them,”” he said.

“”I want to know it will somehow maintain our differentiation between me and other Microsoft resellers.

“”But there is some concern they’re going to let the bigger players claim skills in areas they don’t have. That there will be a generic access to these products and solutions [such as Navision] and that small companies with niche capabilities are going to be passed over.

“”My competency with Navision is the highest in the world . . . but according to this model it’s very unclear how we compare to a big company (on points) who has done one-third as many deployments as us in our niche, because they sell more software.

“”If Microsoft is addressing these issues,”” he added, “”then we’re very happy.””

“”There’s been no reduction in the (certification and training) requirements”” for reselling Navision and Great Plains products, replied Lora Gernon, manger of partner sales and marketing at Microsoft Canada.

However, she also noted that large partners with a broad number of competencies may be able to earn more points in the program than niche VARs.

It’s the first time the conference will be held outside the U.S., a source of pride to the Canadians on the partners’ advisory committee.

“”It’s a great time to show Canadian hospitality,”” said Harry Zarek, president of Compugen Inc.

The list of sessions “”is one of the strongest we’ve ever had, “” said Chris Truazzi, director of the Microsoft solutions practice at Cyberplex Inc. Among the changes are fewer keynote speeches and time slots for attendees to get to the 114 break-out sessions.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will address the crowd on July 13.

It winds up that night with a Pat Benatar concert at Skydome.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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