Head Start on Search

QuickStart for Search gave partners a way to market search skills ahead of a full-blown competency specialization. Here's how it's working nearly one year later.

Even in a maturing technology industry, sometimes a market opportunity arises faster than the Microsoft Partner Program can create a specialization for it. That seems to be the case with enterprise search, which Microsoft believes is already worth more than $1 billion a year and is growing at about 16 percent annually.

In response, Microsoft introduced a new program designed to spur sales of enterprise search during the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) in July 2006. The Quickstart for Search program, sometimes referred to as Jump Start for Search or the Search Challenge, represents a new way for Microsoft to guide partners into an emerging business opportunity.

According to Sherle Webb-Robins, general manager of Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Program, the Quickstart gave Microsoft a way to be more nimble-providing partners with training and resources much faster than Microsoft would have been able to assemble all the certifications and other overhead involved in a full-fledged specialization within the Microsoft Partner Program's Information Worker Competency. Microsoft plans to roll out the formal search specialization at its next WPC in July in Denver.

Upcoming Specializations

Quickstart for Search isn't the only new Microsoft Partner Program specialization on the horizon. To accompany all the new software Microsoft released in late 2006/early 2007, Microsoft plans to roll out four new specializations:

  • Data Visualization specialization for solutions enabling the viewing and analyzing of data visually. Technologies include Visio, Map Point and the Virtual Earth Platform.
  • Performance Management specialization for solutions that help customers improve corporate performance management processes with the 2007 Microsoft Office System.
  • Unified Communications specialization for integrating communication across e-mail, instant messaging, voice, data, video and Web conferencing. Microsoft technologies include Exchange Server 2007 and Office Communications Server 2007.
  • Windows Desktop Deployment specialization for rolling out Windows Vista.

The new specializations will bring the number of Microsoft Partner Program specializations to 27. There are 13 competencies in the program.

At the same time, Quickstart for Search is so closely aligned with one of Microsoft's most promising products, Office SharePoint Server 2007, that it raises questions about the purpose of Microsoft Partner Program competencies and specializations for customers, partners and Microsoft.

Caught Off Guard by Google
The context in which Microsoft announced the partner search program contributed to it being viewed by the industry as a response to Google Inc.-and a way for Microsoft to push its partners out into the market against Google to see what competitive angles might work. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer launched the program during his WPC keynote speech last year. "We're also announcing a new Quickstart program for the Microsoft search. You can sign up at no cost, and ... hopefully we can build the ecosystem and the knowledge in your organization to take this customer value proposition to market and really make it meaningful," Ballmer told partners assembled at the show in Boston.

Google hype reached a fever pitch last summer, and Ballmer's speech came during the same conference in which Microsoft COO Kevin Turner colorfully declared that Microsoft wasn't going to let Google "eat its lunch." Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, recently shed further light on Microsoft's mindset at the time when he said that watching Google rake in advertising revenue "was a wake-up call within Microsoft."

Compared against that market impression, Quickstart for Search hasn't accomplished much for Microsoft. January figures from comScore Networks Inc., which measures Internet activity, continue to place Google far ahead in all U.S.-based searches (47.5 percent Google, 28.5 percent Yahoo! and 10.6 percent Microsoft).

Pointing Partners at Search
Look carefully at the rest of Ballmer's introductory comments and the Quickstart for Search materials on the Microsoft Partner Portal, however, and it's clear that Microsoft is talking about something very different from the search shootout between visitors to and Microsoft's program for partners is aimed at the enterprise search segment. The company considers Internet search part of the package, but it's mostly about searching for data behind the firewall, which requires a combination of good searching technology with a strong portal, effective document organization, powerful indexing and optimization, desktop search tools-plus Internet search. It's about compliance with federal mandates such as Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA, legal discovery, business intelligence and getting the right ERP or CRM data to the right person at the right time.

To get partners working on those issues, Microsoft rolled out the Quickstart program. Partners only need to be Registered Members in the Microsoft Partner Program to get started. The program opens with an introduction to search, followed by sales training, more in-depth search study and a certification exam. Eventually, partners must submit customer references and register their individual certified employees.

Within the training, Microsoft presents an array of technologies, such as Windows Vista, Windows Desktop Search, Microsoft Office, Windows Live Search and the Windows Live Search Center. The materials give partners some surface competitive information to position those technologies against Google's efforts to bring search to the enterprise through Google Appliances and Google Desktop for Enterprise. But the real star of the Quickstart program is Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, which shipped late last year.

In his WPC keynote, despite the surrounding Google hoopla, Ballmer was trying to make it explicit that Microsoft viewed the biggest partner search opportunity as coming from a SharePoint foundation. "For our partners this year ... this represents perhaps one of the very best opportunities out there," Ballmer said. "You put in place SharePoint infrastructure with Vista and Office 2007 [and] the customer gets immediate value from the integrated search capabilities across desktop, enterprise and Internet. And then over time, you can add more capabilities in terms of customized portals [and] Business Data Catalog connectors to other data sources. But having that kind of SharePoint farm and infrastructure in place with a desktop deployment of Vista and Office 2007, I think that is a powerful selling opportunity that we all can get behind."

Microsoft places the search market inside a broader "information management" market estimated at $12.8 billion in 2009. That market includes end-user query/reporting/analysis, spatial information management, enterprise portals, data mining, technical data analysis and data warehouses alongside enterprise search. The enterprise search element is projected to be worth $1.4 billion in 2008 worldwide and $700 million in the United States, according to Microsoft. It estimates the enterprise search market will grow to $1.7 billion in 2009 worldwide. Citing partner interviews, Microsoft estimates deal margins in search at about 30 percent.

Those deals primarily involve SharePoint. One Quickstart training slide, for example, provides three types of search implementations-two where a customer already has SharePoint installed and needs help adding or optimizing search, and one where the customer needs to add SharePoint. Another slide, which presents a business case for partners, adds up SharePoint-based search deals and non-SharePoint search deals that a theoretical systems integrator might do in building an enterprise search business. The SharePoint deals represent two-thirds of the deals and, in the business case, are trending up. This SharePoint-related push within Quickstart for Search continues. On March 1, Microsoft launched a three-month promotion offering customers $1,000 toward partner enterprise search deployment services when they buy Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. Webb-Robins says Microsoft has good momentum for the Quickstart program. More than 1,800 partners signed up in the first six months.

Navigating an Emerging Program
One firm that jumped immediately into the Quickstart program is Lexalytics Inc., a Registered Member that provides text analytics software and services.

Jeff Catlin, CEO of the Amherst, Mass.-based company, found bugs in the rushed-to-partners program last fall, but says its benefits outweigh the problems: "The concept is fantastic, because it's an actual site and a place where companies like ourselves and other companies can find a lot of information about search."

One area where Catlin experienced frustration was in connecting with other partners. "The partners out there, VARs and SIs, they're looking for people like us. Right now, that site is very difficult [to use for making] those connections."

Keith Lubner, managing partner of Channel Consulting Corp., a New Jersey-based firm that's helping Lexalytics shape its channel marketing strategy, learned Quickstart for Search on the fly as well. "The biggest [positive] about the Microsoft channel is [it has its] act together as far as listening to people," Lubner says. "[Does it] have problems? Yeah, because [it's] really big. If you work it, and you're constantly trying to get in touch with people, you'll find success."

It was just that kind of effort that brought Lexalytics its "aha" moment. Although the company was looking for enterprise search partners, it was better off using other tools in the Microsoft Partner Program to make those connections. Lexalytics figured out that it was easier to find enterprise search partners by looking in the Microsoft Channel Builder for companies that advertised SharePoint-based solutions through that tool.

"That really helped us out a lot. As we talked to those companies, we found people who aligned with Jeff's application. One of them was a home run. They immediately brought us into a major, major customer," Lubner says.

Ongoing Tension
One analyst who's intimately familiar with the Microsoft Partner Program, Paul DeGroot, supports Microsoft's need to move quickly on new market opportunities and to further provide its partners and customers with ways to identify each other among the hundreds of thousands of companies in the partner community. On the other hand, DeGroot, of Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, is concerned that fast-moving specializations may start to become driven by Microsoft product groups rather than concrete markets.

"The thing that Microsoft probably needs to be aware of is who the audience is here. This approach can be valid, as long as Microsoft understands that the purpose of these specializations is to make very clear to customers what a partner can do and to make clear to partners that there is a demand for a particular skill, for partners with a fairly narrow set of skills," DeGroot says.

"What concerns me is that every product team in Microsoft is going to want to have its own bunch of Certified Partners. I can't necessarily say I've seen that yet. The search specialization might be an example of that. These are SharePoint partners," DeGroot says.

"That could be a problem if Microsoft basically says, hey look, we've got this new product coming out. It's got this new capability. Let's design a competency thingy to get partners involved in it," DeGroot adds. "This is just an ongoing tension that Microsoft has."

Creating an On-Ramp
Microsoft's Webb-Robins disagrees with the assertion that Quickstart for Search represents any kind of temptation to put a product group in front of customer and partner needs. "This is an answer to help respond quickly to market needs and customer/partner demands for skills and support in preparation for new competencies," she says.

In her view, the Quickstart program has been a success when measured against Microsoft's goals for the program-creating an "on-ramp" for partners into a new practice area without requiring partners to immediately invest in a specialization: "After only six months of this program, we have seen success both from partner skilling [and] engagement and success from partners recognizing early revenue wins from engagements."