The Business

Partner Focus: Robert Epstein, Microsoft

A good working relationship with Microsoft is often the lifeblood of any IT consultancy or reseller business. Microsoft still sells the vast majority of its products through the channel, but recent moves into cloud-based services have led some firms to worry that Microsoft might bypass them, and sell directly to SMEs.

ITEXPERT put these concerns to Robert Epstein, head of SME Sales and Marketing at Microsoft UK, and asked him to give an update on both the vendor’s product roadmap and its plans for the channel.

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ITEXPERT: Last year was a busy one for Microsoft, in terms of new products and product updates, and this year looks set to be equally busy. Can you give us an update on the Microsoft environment and ecosystem, especially for small and mid-sized businesses?

Robert Epstein, Microsoft: We are in the middle of refreshing of most of the key applications, especially for SMEs. Most SMEs are still using a huge variety of technology from the last ten years.

On the desktop, Windows XP is still the dominant operating system although that is changing rapidly: the wave of new products really kicked off last year with Windows 7 and there’s been a huge amount of excitement for that product. SMEs are now saying they are ready to move off of XP and are looking for an operating system that is more stable and more secure, and hopefully easier to use as well.

Windows 7 is probably the biggest change that most users every day will see but again we released Windows Server 2008 R2 towards the end of last year and that’s providing some great new capabilities, especially when coupled with Windows 7.

ITX: You have a new version of Exchange (covered in detail on page 12) and a new version of Office that is in public beta. What are the main features here that benefit smaller companies?

R: Exchange 2010 is now out and that provides some significant updates. The other thing is integration of unified messaging and unified communications – there is a great opportunity for businesses to move their PBX and voicemail systems to Exchange. Couple that with Office 2010 and you can go all the way to picking up email from anywhere – via a browser or mobile phone.

ITX: Microsoft is emphasising its cloud offerings and you are looking to mix on-premises applications with services. But that could be seen as a threat to the channel, if Microsoft sells these services directly to the customer. How do you respond to that?

R: Microsoft always has been and always will be very partner oriented. We’ve ensured our cloud services such as BPOS have a channel model and there is margin for our channel within that. I think that cloud services provide great opportunities, mainly because they allows companies to extend their capabilities You may have VARs that don’t have the technical skills to implement SharePoint or Office Communications Server, for example, who can now very simply offer those services [via the cloud].

Customers are not suddenly going to flip a switch overnight and move everything to the cloud. Nor will a very vanilla [cloud] offering as provided by many companies online work for everyone. So there is still a requirement for on-premises software. We allow customers to run both on-premise and cloud solutions, either hosted directly by Microsoft or through hosting partners. The opportunity for resellers is to connect all that together, and to integrate it.

ITX: What do you think offers the greatest potential for Microsoft partners to win new business?

R: The wave of new products we are releasing provides huge opportunities for all types of resellers. The recent economic climate has caused many SMBs to reduce their IT investments, extend the life of hardware and continue to 'sticky plaster’ their IT infrastructure together. That infrastructure is now really starting to creak. But the customer response to Windows 7 has been terrific. Coupling that with Windows Server 2008 R2 provides a great opportunity to provide a whole new, improved, simpler and more secure core infrastructure to SMEs.

Also BPOS and hosted solutions offer a way for resellers to expand their traditional services with offerings such as SharePoint, instant messaging or LiveMeeting. Providing these solutions online means there is no capital expenditure for the customer allowing them to invest in their on-site needs such as new PCs, servers and reseller services.

How Microsoft is improving support for the channel

Microsoft already has the largest partner programme of any software vendor, and is now rolling out its latest incarnation: the Microsoft Partner Network. This gives partners benefits from sales and marketing support to training and access to software licenses for in house use.

Tools such as Pinpoint help partners promote themselves and their services to customers visiting Microsoft’s Web sites and the programme includes content for partners’ marketing campaigns.

Microsoft’s Partner Community, on the other hand, is a social network style site for partners to enable them to discuss technical issues and network, as well as to find opportunities for joint bids on large projects, based on pooling their skills. We’ve got full details of what's in Microsoft’s current Partner Programme, and how that changes over the next year, on page 50.

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