Memo to Microsoft Channel Chief: Show Partners SaaS Love

Memo to Microsoft Channel Chief: Show Partners SaaS Love

As Microsoft transitions its channel chief title from Allison Watson to Jon Roskill, the shift provides an inflection point for both Microsoft and the broader IT channel. No doubt, Watson has made cloud computing and SaaS a channel priority during 2010. But Roskill has the opportunity to both clarify and accelerate Microsoft's SaaS channel strategy -- especially as it relates to small VARs and emerging managed services providers. Here are five steps Roskill should take.

Microsoft announced the channel chief change on June 24, less than three weeks before the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) is scheduled to start (July 11, Washington D.C.).

What SaaS and cloud partner steps can Roskill potentially take? Here are five recommendations:

1. Name a Microsoft Cloud Channel Chief: Sure, cloud computing is full of hype. But the shift from on-premises options (like Microsoft Small Business Server, Exchange Server and SharePoint) is accelerating and undeniable. Microsoft has partner programs for Windows Azure and Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS, featuring Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, etc.).

Roskill should take the next natural step: Name someone within the Microsoft channel organization to be the point person on all things SaaS and cloud. If that person already exists put the spotlight on them. Fast. That way, partners have one throat to choke as they sort out their own SaaS and cloud efforts.

2. Synchronize On-premises and Cloud/SaaS software updates: Imagine a world where Microsoft delivers on-premises upgrades (like Exchange Server 2010) before rolling out the same software in the cloud. Actually, that's exactly what happens today. Microsoft certainly is working to synchronize on-premises and SaaS releases. But communications about the synchronization efforts have been mixed at best.

Going forward, all channel communications about new products should clearly communicate when the product's on-premises offering will reach the channel, when the channel should expect the equivalent SaaS and cloud versions to debut. And by 2011, Microsoft should synchronize all software releases so that VARs and MSPs can help customers make apples-to-apples comparisons when exploring on-premises vs. cloud options.

3. Be Honest When You Kill Products: When Microsoft killed Response Point -- an on-premises VoIP system for small businesses -- the software giant created market confusion rather than clarity. Response Point development died in June 2009 but Microsoft didn't officially bury the product until May 2010. Talk about a rotting corpse. Instead of sending out concise death notices, Microsoft created an extended death watch surrounded by poor communications and lack of clarity for the channel. If Microsoft pushes additional on-premises products into the grave, the funeral should be short and sweet, with clear next steps for channel partners.

4. Learn From Google and Spend More Time With MSPs: It's time for Microsoft to hang out at MSP-centric conferences to meet and listen to an important, growing audience within the IT channel.

This example -- involving Symantec vs. ConnectWise -- shows just how out of touch big software providers are with the MSP industry. Plus, I strongly believe the Google Apps reseller team (particularly Jeff Ragusa and Stephen Cho) spends far more time than Microsoft at MSP-centric conferences. That's an alarming trend that Roskill needs to correct.

I hope to see clear changes at Microsoft's own 2010 Worldwide Partner Conference, slated to start July 11 in Washington D.C.

The 2009 WPC was filled with Windows 7 and Office 2010 launch strategy news. More recently, Microsoft has been reaching out to resellers, asking them if they'd like to host Windows 7 "Lunch and Learn" conferences for end-customers.

Here's the problem: End-customers no longer care about operating system upgrades and Windows bells and whistles, according to MSPs that spoke on our June 23 MSPmentor Live webcast. No doubt, Windows 7 has been well-received by end-customers. But MSPs are looking for Microsoft to help with SaaS and cloud messaging. Time for Microsoft to shift more channel development dollars over to the cloud. Hopefully, we'll hear more when WPC 2010 starts July 11 in Washington, D.C.

5. Help MSPs Discover New Azure Applications: Some MSPs want to offer BPOS applications like Exchange Online and SharePoint Online. But many MSPs worry about slim BPOS profit opportunities and lack of customer control. Instead of pitching BPOS so aggressively to MSPs and VARs, it's time for Microsoft to more aggressively promote Windows Azure to partners.

Already, Azure hosts a range of third-party applications. And there are clear opportunities for VARs and MSPs to add value on top top of those Azure applications. But alas, most VARs and MSPs have yet to kick Azure's tires. Time for that to change.

Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?

Plenty of skeptics think cloud, SaaS, mobile and open source computing will ultimately topple Microsoft's empire. But I think it's important to keep both sides of the story in mind.

Generally speaking, it's safe to say Exchange and SharePoint remain among the world's most popular SaaS applications. In recent months, outgoing channel chief Allison Watson spent considerable time articulating how VARs and MSPs can start the journey into that cloud. Now it's time for incoming channel chief Jon Roskill to accelerate that SaaS journey for partners.

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