First, the good news. Microsoft is in better shape today than the company was roughly two years ago, when the Windows 7 and Office 2010 launches dominated WPC 10. That conference was about fixing the old Windows Vista debacle, even as the rest of the IT industry was moving onto smartphones, tablets and cloud discussions. By WPC 11 in July 2011, Microsoft was finally ready with Office 365.
Fast forward to this year's WPC 12, and Ballmer must prove he has shifted Microsoft from catch-up mode to innovation mode. Here are five inflection points worth noting:
1. Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8: In recent days, The VAR Guy has heard from numerous partners who say the company's imminent upgrades -- Windows Server 2012, Windows 8, etc. -- represent a strong product pipeline.
While Ballmer balances the on-premises and cloud messages, Microsoft is wisely trimming back the number of Windows 2012 Server versions -- though some partners are upset about Windows Small Business Server's death.
But Microsoft wants those SBS partners to shift to the cloud. And some partners, such as Salon, say they are making serious consulting revenues from Office 365 deployments.
2. Windows Azure Trumps Office 365?: Still, a lot of partners have yet to engage on the Office 365 front -- where Microsoft sometimes seems to be focused more on an Office 365 price war with Google Apps rather than partner wins.
If you check the agenda here at WPC 12, Microsoft seems to be putting a lot of the cloud spotlight on Windows Azure, SQL Azure and System Server (for private cloud management). There's very little Office 365 on the conference agenda... But perhaps Ballmer will pitch the cloud suite during Monday's keynote.
3. Skype and Yammer: Meanwhile, The VAR Guy thinks Microsoft's buyouts of Skype and Yammer could pay big dividends for partners over the long haul, but Ballmer must explain to partners how those offerings will converge with Exchange, SharePoint and Lync in particular.
4. The Rivalries: Sure, Ballmer may mention Apple, Google and VMware in his keynote -- but don't expect too much competitive posturing from Microsoft's CEO. At this annual conference, COO Kevin Turner typically delivers bombshell competitive statements and he won't be onstage until Wednesday, July 11. That day, Channel Chief Jon Roskill will open with his views on the Microsoft Partner Network, with Turner sharing his vision for competing to win.
5. The Big Questions: Of course, the biggest questions remain around Microsoft's tablet and smartphone strategies -- each of which hinge on the Windows 8 launch later this year. Some partners here are concerned that Windows 8 won't deliver much business value -- though there are numerous business-centric Windows 8 sessions here. Others say Ballmer's Surface Tablet announcement in June was underwhelming compared to the complete system Apple's iPad offers.
On the Windows 8 and smartphone fronts, listen closely for updates from Ballmer plus:
- Erwin Visser, senior director, Windows Commercial Business Group;
- Charles Thomas Gruhler, a technology marketing executive and branding strategist who will talk up Windows Phone.