Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) is due to kick off in Toronto next weekend, attracting thousands of global partners.
The firm's CEO Satya Nadella is expected to deliver a keynote address to partners, with its chief operating officer Kevin Turner and cloud product boss Julia White due to join him on stage, among others.
Over the past year, Microsoft has continued its journey into the cloud and earlier this month coughed up a whopping $26.2bn (£19.5bn) for professional social networking site LinkedIn. These are just some of the key issues Microsoft partners told CRN they want to hear more about at the conference. New products, SMB commitment and Windows 10 were among other topics partners wanted to cover.
When Microsoft announced its plan to buy LinkedIn, it claimed the acquisition will help accelerate its Office 365 and Dynamics CRM offerings. But analyst Forrester's principal analyst Dan Bieler poured cold water on the move, questioning whether the sale might compromise LinkedIn's status as an independent platform and scare away some of its 433 million users.
"If they'd invested a fraction of that [$26.2bn] into the partner community, I reckon they'd get a significantly greater return on that investment."
Neil Murphy (pictured), managing director of Bytes, told CRN that seven of his staff will be heading to Canada for the event. He said on the surface, the LinkedIn move won't have much to do with partners, so he hopes more will be explained about the benefits at WPC.
"We're interested in LinkedIn and how that is going to affect their Office offerings," he said.
"In theory, I can understand why Microsoft might want to make such an acquisition, as social and business media is merging into one in many aspects. But I find it hard to understand how LinkedIn is going to be a useful addition to, say, Office 365, for example.
"I am intrigued about the business benefits our customers can get from this. Frankly, it is a great headhunting tool, but that's it. It's useful for headhunters, but it is a pain in the arse for employers like me.
"If they had invested a fraction of that [$26.2bn] into the partner community, I reckon they'd get a significantly greater return on that investment. But Microsoft knows a lot more about this subject than I do."
WPC takes place just weeks into the start of Microsoft's financial year, meaning it acts as a kick-off event for its partners. There has been significant change in Microsoft's global and UK channel leadership since the last event: last summer, Microsoft UK appointed Martin Gregory as its partner business development director after his predecessor Linda Rendleman returned to the US; and on a global level, Microsoft channel chief Phil Sorgen stepped out of his role, with Gavriella Schuster stepping in for him on an interim basis.
With this in mind, partners will be keen to find out what the new channel bosses have in store for them.
"The fact is, Phil has moved on and Gavriella has stepped into his shoes," said Kelvin Kirby, CEO of Technology Associates. "Hopefully we will hear more from Gavriella at WPC about what's coming and what the future is. I am optimistic about Gavriella in that role as she is perfectly suited for it. It will be really interesting to see what she brings to the party. Her wider remit will give her scope for looking at the bigger picture."
Bytes' Murphy agreed, but stressed he hopes it is a two-way street with the new faces at the top.
"We really want to get an update on the channel strategy and how it's going to affect their partners," he said. "Undoubtedly [Gregory and Schuster] will have their own ideas to implement – so we want to make sure we are both listened to as well as listening to their vision. Hopefully by sending seven people we will be listened to by all the various lines of business Microsoft has."
Microsoft has talked up its cloud credentials for years now, and has made significant changes to its partner programme as a result. Office 365 and Dynamics CRM Online are two of the key products it has seen success in with cloud.
Both products have been significant to Microsoft and its partners in recent years as it has pushed more and more towards the cloud.
In its recent Q3 results, detailing performance for the three months to 31 March 2016, Microsoft announced Office 365 revenue grew 63 per cent in constant currency. Meanwhile, over the same period, Dynamics products and cloud services grew nine per cent in constant currency, and Dynamics CRM Online seats more than doubled annually.
But the focus on certain products' cloud credentials has been at the detriment of others, according to Technology Associates' Kirby.
He is hoping to hear that a wider range of products – specifically Project Online – will count towards cloud competencies.
"I'm hoping they will realign some of the cloud competencies," he said. "For example, we don't get recognition for Project Online being a cloud service. So although we get, in theory, revenue compensation, essentially there is no cloud competency [we can get] by selling Project Online – it is only if you're selling Office 365 or Azure.
"It is the only way you are recognised as being eligible for a cloud competency and I just think that's crazy. The Project Portfolio Management competency really should make you eligible if you're selling the online licences and it doesn't at the moment. That's an area we specialise in and I know other companies are in the same boat. You don't get recognised for a cloud competency, and receive all the benefits of a cloud competency, even though you're selling hundreds of [cloud] licences.
Bytes' Murphy said he too wants to hear more about Microsoft's cloud strategy.
"We want to see clarity around the various licensing programmes that are being promoted and sold – and clarity around the future of the CSP model versus the MPSA model," he said.