Microsoft Partners Conference: 3 Things To Watch

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is riding positive momentum into the Worldwide Partner Conference, but he will face questions ranging from recent Office 365 outages to the status of Windows 9.
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On Monday in Washington, DC, Microsoft will kick off its annual Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC). Over the last few months, new CEO Satya Nadella has taken the stage before a number of important Microsoft constituents, including developers and investors. Nadella has earned mostly praise for these appearances, but partners will bring their own set of unique needs and questions.

Microsoft handles sales and support for more of its products and services than it has in the past, but it still counts on partners for billions in revenue. Nadella no doubt knows that he and other execs will need to put on a persuasive show at the WPC. On Wednesday, the company made a barrage of cloud-related announcements to set the tone, and if that weren't enough, Nadella published a 3,000-word essay on Thursday outlining his philosophies and goals as CEO.

What can you expect from Microsoft at the WPC? Here are three things to watch.

1. Satya Nadella will focus on Microsoft's "unique strength": productivity.
As soon as he began making public appearances as CEO, Nadella said Microsoft must focus on its unique strengths. What he meant by this was initially somewhat abstract, though many appreciated his focus on distinct capabilities, rather than trying to follow whatever Apple and Google are doing. In Thursday's letter, he got more specific, clarifying that Microsoft's strength is its ability to create productivity platforms.

This viewpoint caters to business-oriented users who traditionally have made up the biggest chunk of Microsoft's user base, but the company still has its eye on consumers. Nadella made it clear that, because average consumers still have to be productive, he considers all customers "dual users" whose personal and professional data must be handled separately.

2. Microsoft execs will talk up Azure and Office 365.
On Thursday, Nadella said Microsoft's Cloud OS, which strings on-premises servers to hybrid and public cloud services, will give the company an edge as more companies embrace cloud products. This isn't just salesmanship. Whether for logistical reasons or because they want to keep tight control over data, most companies aren't going to jump wholesale to hosted cloud services. At the same time, cloud services offer compelling economies of scale. Resources can be scaled on demand, and IT staffers can focus on business-driving projects instead of daily maintenance, for example. Businesses need a way to move between the on-premises and cloud worlds. Microsoft's ability to provide this bridge -- and to convince partners to help -- will be central to its growth.

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As the cloud backbone for many of Microsoft's hosted services, Azure is already recognized as a robust platform. Company execs will surely point out the blistering pace at which Microsoft has added capabilities. Azure StorSimple, a recently announced on-premises hardware appliance that integrates with Azure for backup and disaster recovery, likely will be among the new options Microsoft shows off at the WPC.

Microsoft also will brag about Office 365, which it says is the fastest-growing product in company history. Expect to hear Nadella and other execs talk about Office becoming more productive and personalized thanks to machine-learning tools. Microsoft has already previewed upcoming products such as Power BI Q&A, which allows users to perform data analysis via natural-language queries. This could make analytics more user friendly to non-data scientists. Other upcoming Office 365 releases include Delve, which learns which people and tasks are most important to the user and automatically surfaces helpful and timely information.

3. Microsoft will face questions about partner support, device efforts, and the future of Windows.
Microsoft is riding a lot of positive momentum into the WPC. When the worst that can be said of Azure is that it's still second fiddle to Amazon in the overall cloud world, Microsoft has to feel good about its progress.

That said, the company has hit several bumps recently, and it still faces uncertainties carried over from the Ballmer era. Recent Lync and Exchange Online outages have raised concerns about Microsoft's responsiveness and real-time customer support. Confusion over the number of iPv4 addresses available to Microsoft, and how it will move to IPv6, is another potential issue.

Meanwhile, as Microsoft forges unions with and other potential competitors, it will have to help its larger partner community understand the new landscape. Some partners will expect more guidance. It's difficult, after all, to move one's catalogue from on-premises packages to hybrid and public cloud offerings. This difficulty is slightly compounded by the fact that Nadella rarely mentioned partners in his first appearances. The new CEO has assiduously repeated pet phrases, distanced himself from certain Ballmer slogans, and otherwise worked to put his rhetorical stamp on Microsoft messaging. Given his focus on language, some partners were troubled when they received so little attention during early speeches. In recent weeks, partners have become a bigger Nadella talking point.

As much as the WPC will revolve around Microsoft's cloud products, Windows and Windows Phone remain lingering question marks. Rumors hold that Microsoft recognizes Windows 8 has turned into Vista Version 2, and that it is barreling toward Threshold, a new version that might be called Windows 9 and will finally restore the Start menu. Will Nadella give partners a sneak peak at Threshold? Will he explain a strategy for Nokia and Windows Phone?

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