In-Depth

Shaking up Subscriptions

As part of the Microsoft Partner Network overhaul, Microsoft is revamping the popular Action Pack program this month.

The rollout of the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) has been a long process. This month, Microsoft will formally launch most of the new partner Competencies that partner executives have been talking about for more than a year. In October, many of the Advanced Competencies will go into effect. One area that's been a question mark -- despite all the talk about social networking, partnering goals, program levels and landing places -- is the subscription tier of the MPN.

Subscriptions are a question no longer. Microsoft at last clarified its intentions in late March, with changes going into effect at the end of this month. At a high level, Microsoft will retire the current Microsoft Action Pack Subscription (MAPS), a massive program with a huge and mostly adoring fan base, and retire the much smaller but also highly regarded Empower for ISV programs. Launching in their places on May 24 will be two new versions of the Action Pack, the Action Pack Solution Provider subscription and the Action Pack Development and Design subscription. Two existing programs for startup companies -- BizSpark and WebsiteSpark -- will also continue under the subscriptions umbrella of the MPN.

Julie Bennani, general manager of the MPN, unveiled the changes in a series of short webcasts on the Microsoft Partner Portal.

"We want to make sure that we're very crisp and clear on what partners need to do next, and that's the biggest focus right now," Bennani said in an interview. "We're revamping our subscription space, which is a very large community of partners."

The size of that community would make any transition tricky. According to Microsoft, there are about 150,000 partner subscribers worldwide. That accounts for between more than a third and just under half of all partners enrolled in the MPN, based upon the program's range of 300,000-400,000 partners over the last few years.

MAPS is a quarterly bundle of trial software for internal use by Registered Members of the Microsoft Partner Program. Since November 2007, partners have also had to pass an exam to receive the Action Pack, a move instituted to reduce abuse of the deal. For example, in November 2005, Microsoft filed seven lawsuits against members of its partner community, accusing them of improperly reselling MAPS software. Last June, the company further evolved MAPS by making distribution digital by default, although partners could pay extra to receive physical media.

 "We want to make sure that we're very crisp and clear on what partners need to do next, and that's the biggest focus right now."

Julie Bennani, General Manager, Microsoft Partner Network

Despite the risk of illegal software distribution and the potential loss of software license revenues from some 150,000 prospective partners and customers, Microsoft obviously continues to see benefits to keeping partners close in a competitive world through all of the subscription programs.

"The intent of the subscription space in MPN is about retention of partners that are working with us and helping them develop their businesses. They're not quite ready to market themselves," Bennani said. "Maybe they don't have enough customer experience, depth of technical expertise, etc., to be in the competencies, but we want them with us. So it's a very big and important space for us -- and a good investment. They're very important to us. They do a lot of great work locally with customers, particularly in the SMB space."

Action Pack Solution Provider
It's likely that the bulk of Action Pack subscribers will end up in the new Action Pack Solution Provider subscription, which begins May 24.

Action Pack Solution Provider is built on Microsoft's existing TechNet subscription program for IT professionals. The core of the program, which corresponds most directly to the digital software distribution under the old MAPS program, will be a special TechNet for Microsoft Action Pack Solution Providers Subscription or TechNet for Action Pack. (That was the name at press time, although precise naming of the TechNet subscription seemed to be in flux as of early April.) Elsewhere on Microsoft's site, it was listed as TechNet Professional (online Partner Edition). The TechNet subscription is also supposed to include access to the Microsoft TechNet Library and the TechNet community Managed Forums.

Action Pack Solution Provider will also include visibility in Microsoft's two main partner directories for customers, PinPoint and Solution Finder; opportunities to recruit students; online sales skills training; and access to quarterly support webinars.

Action Pack Development and Design
Just as Action Pack Solution Provider is based on a TechNet subscription, Action Pack Development and Design will be founded on a Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) subscription.

Benefits under that program consist of:

  • Three MSDN for Microsoft Action Pack Development and Design subscriptions
  • 10 hours of phone-based technical design and development support
  • Access to quarterly recorded technical support webinars
  • Technical and sales training focused on development and design
  • Access to community peer groups
  • Visibility in Microsoft partner directories for customers

To qualify for the Action Pack Development and Design subscription, partners will have to enroll in the MPN, have fewer than 100 employees and pass an online assessment every two years.

"This announcement should be especially exciting for partners who've reached their two-year limit in the Empower for ISVs program, which we're retiring," Bennani said in her March webcast.

Empower for ISVs Retired
Unlike the retiring MAPS, which is splitting into two very similar programs, Empower for ISVs is not being directly replaced by anything.

Empower for ISVs was a $375 (U.S. price) per-year, two-year program for micro, small or midsize ISVs that Microsoft described as being in the "intensive growth phase." Microsoft's main requirement was that Empower participants commit to developing one packaged software solution for sale that would support a major Microsoft software product, such as Windows 7 or SQL Server 2008. Only Registered Members were eligible -- no Certified Partners or Gold Certified Partners could get in on the low-cost arrangement.

Benefits included one license of Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 Professional Edition with an MSDN Premium subscription, five licenses for Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 Professional Edition, five internal-use licenses for Windows 7 Professional and Microsoft Office 2007 Professional, and a server license and five CALs for Windows Server 2008 R2, Exchange Server 2010, SQL Server 2008 and Office SharePoint Server 2007. The program also came with 10 hours of telephone-based professional consulting on software development advice, best-practices recommendations, code samples and limited reviews of technology, architecture or application design.

ISVs interested in the old Empower program will still be able to sign up until May 21. After that date, ISVs will need to transition to one of the other Microsoft subscription programs or prepare to make the jump up to the ISV/Software Solutions Competency if they choose to remain in the MPN and need development software. Companies that signed up for Empower last year can renew for their second year, but only if they're within 90 days of their first-year expiration date, according to information on the Microsoft Partner Portal.

Development and startup companies have a few other options than the developer and design-focused Action Pack for now, even with Empower for ISVs going away.

BizSpark
Another major component of the MPN subscription program is BizSpark, which launched in November 2008. The startup-focused program requires that participants be privately held, in business for less than three years at the time of enrollment and have less than $1 million in annual revenue. The main requirement is that a BizSpark candidate company be developing a Software plus Services solution on any platform. To enter the program, companies must be nominated by one of the government agencies, venture capital firms or other pre-qualified companies within the Microsoft BizSpark network.

Like the other subscriptions in the MPN, BizSpark comes with a lot of access to software during the three years that companies are eligible to participate. The program brings rights for the entire team, starting at up to 25 employees, to all the software included in the Visual Studio Team System (VSTS) Team Suite with an MSDN Premium subscription, Expression Studio and VSTS Team Foundation Server Standard Edition. There are some internal-use rights and support incidents that are normally included in MSDN Premium subscriptions that aren't offered to BizSpark participants.

WebsiteSpark
A newer Microsoft program, related to BizSpark and now an element of the MPN subscription program, is WebsiteSpark, which formally launched in September 2009. While BizSpark is aimed at startups, WebsiteSpark is for professional services firms that offer Web design and development services. Details on this market are hard to come by, but a few years ago, Microsoft was talking about potentially adding tens of thousands of so-called Digital Agencies to the Microsoft channel, and WebsiteSpark would be a logical landing zone for that community. Eventually, those partners could graduate into the new Digital Agency Competency that Microsoft recently created within the MPN.

Eligibility requirements for WebsiteSpark participation are that the agency have no more than 10 employees, and the program is open to sole proprietors. Requirements are simply to join the MPN and develop and deploy at least one new Web site on Windows Server within six months.

Pricing Remains in a Tight Range
The pricing on both the BizSpark and WebsiteSpark remains free up front with a fee of $100 upon leaving the program, making the three-year programs extremely cheap. Companies that leave the WebsiteSpark program in the first six months -- in other words, prior to the requirement of getting a Web site up on Windows Server -- pay no fee if they notify Microsoft that they're withdrawing.

Where the MPN subscription shakeup begins to affect pricing is in the Action Pack Solution Provider, but again, the changes are relatively slight and something of a mixed bag. Microsoft currently charges $299 for MAPS in the United States, and charges $498 total for those partners who still want the software shipped on physical media rather than have it delivered digitally. The price for the Action Pack Solution Provider subscription will jump about 10 percent for digital subscribers to about $329 in the United States. Prices vary internationally. Those looking for physical media will see some savings, with the total price dropping to $429 in the United States.

Prices jump for those looking at the Action Pack on the developer side. The Action Pack Development and Design subscription will cost $429 per year for digital delivery and $529 with physical media shipments. To ease the transition, the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Group launched a discount promotion for the Action Pack Development and Design subscription in late March on Global Partner Experience Lead Eric Ligman's blog. The offering amounts to a 15 percent discount on the subscription price, which would bring the U.S. pre-tax price down to about $365 for the digital-only version. Microsoft will accept requests for the offer until May 23, then deliver a single-use promotion code to qualified applicants the week of May 24.

"Microsoft appears to be adding some benefits to the standard Action Pack, like TechNet subscriptions and directory listings, and doing some kind of MSDN-lite thing for small developers," says Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "I'd say these are good moves -- a lot of development is done by small shops, and this could be a lower-cost option than MSDN."

However, DeGroot says, it could potentially cannibalize MSDN. "Even then, that's not necessarily a bad thing," he explains. "Microsoft has always been quite generous with partners and developers and it appears to be doubling down on that bet."

In all, Microsoft seems to be trying to make the transition from MAPS to Action Pack Solution Provider relatively smooth and straightforward for the traditional solution provider partners who rely on the package to power their Microsoft-based businesses. At the same time, the majority of the programs and the efforts seem to be on the development and new business model side. That leaves the subscription area of the MPN focused on a new generation of Microsoft partners -- those trying to build solutions that leave the infrastructure in the cloud.

Indeed, Bennani indicated more programs may be coming, and she identified marketing agencies as likely recipients. "In the future, we may see a need to do an additional subscription or two to help activate those new communities with other business models," she said.

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