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Microsoft partner program drops Gold certification to help top VARs

Microsoft overhauls its channel program, renaming it the Microsoft Partner Network, restructuring its tiers and streamlining partner specialization areas.

NEW ORLEANS -- If you're a Microsoft Gold partner now, you won't be for much longer.

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Microsoft is completely revamping its partner program, renaming it the Microsoft Partner Network. As part of the changes, the company is responding to complaints about the devaluation of the highest-level Gold designation and will eliminate it over the next 18 to 24 months. It will also drop the second-tier Certified designation.

Instead, Microsoft will encourage its top VARs to get very specialized and dig deeper into key technologies to gain a new Advanced designation. The company will announce the changes today at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference 2009 in New Orleans.

As for the total number of partners -- VARs, integrators and independent software vendors (ISVs) -- that will carry the Advanced designation, Microsoft does not expect it to increase compared to current Gold numbers, said Julie Bennani, general manger of the Microsoft Partner Network.

"It will go deeper, not wider," she told in a pre-conference interview.

John Powers, CEO of Digipede Technologies LLC, an independent software vendor in Oakland, Calif., said the partner program changes will help his company and others differentiate themselves more.

"We've been saying that there's got to be a way for Microsoft to play favorites more, and this is in response to that feedback," he said.

Bennani acknowledged criticism of the Gold designation.

"'We want better differentiation in the market of where we are and what we do,'" she said partners have told her. "Gold doesn't help much. It's not precise enough."

The nuts and bolts of the channel partner program changes are complicated, which is inevitable given the breadth of Microsoft's product line.

The current structure has three tiers of partners -- Gold, Certified and Registered -- with additional designations available in 17 broad competencies and 46 technology specialization areas. Once these changes take effect, there will be two levels of partners -- Advanced and Registered -- and 30 competencies.

Watch Allison Watson, senior vice president of worldwide channels, discuss the Microsoft Partner Network: (story continued below)

Microsoft will also rename the competencies with more customer-friendly wording instead of Microsoft-centric labels that mean little to the outside world. For example, a current Gold Information Worker partner could become an Advanced partner in content management, collaboration and/or business intelligence expertise, Bennani said.

"I absolutely think that's great if they tie [the names] to some of their platform products," said Alan "Skip" Gould, CEO of BrightPlanIT Inc., a Buffalo, N.Y.-based Microsoft Gold partner. "If you call it Information Worker, that's one thing, but if you call it SharePoint, that will add value to the clients."

To earn the Advanced label, partners must attain "the deepest expertise and show the deepest commitment," Bennani said. In return, Microsoft will support those partners with marketing and promotional resources -- as well as priority access to new deals.

Microsoft fields an army of 640,000 partner organizations and has said in the past it is shooting for one million over the next few years, a goal that Bennani reiterated. But many partners have long held that Microsoft's channel is already too big.

"One million partners? Geez, that's an elite club," said a Microsoft Gold partner in New England. "Does that leave any customers?"

Microsoft will make room for a wide variety of partners with varying levels of commitment, Bennani said. A small VAR that wants to test the waters can gain what Microsoft calls a Quickcert by entering an email address and basic company information. The Quickcert will then give that VAR access to Microsoft Partner Network blogs and case studies.

The worldwide population of Gold partners is 16,700, including 4,500 in the United States. For Certified partners, there are 18,000 globally, with 6,000 of those being stateside. And there are 305,000 Registered partners, including 99,500 in the United States. The worldwide count also includes another 20,000 small business specialists.

Also at the Worldwide Partner Conference this week, Microsoft will advise partners on how to capitalize on the Oct. 22 launch of Windows 7, talk more about its pricing and sales model for Azure Web Services, its cloud development platform and push more partners to do virtualization work with Hyper-V.

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