In-Depth

The WPC 2016 Lists: Top Themes, Sessions and Reveals

The Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference sets the tone for partners for the year ahead. RCP analyzed the WPC session catalog to bring you everything you need to know to get the most out of the show or to track it from the office.

  • Get more news from WPC 2016 here.

It's reasonable to think of the Microsoft ecosystem as a massive fleet, with Microsoft as an aircraft carrier surrounded by literally thousands of ships and boats -- from destroyer- and battleship-sized alliance partners down to little motorboat-sized small-to-midsize business (SMB) and boutique partners. At carrier size, it takes Microsoft some time to change direction. If those smaller boats aren't ready, they can be run over by Microsoft or its more attuned partners. If they are ready, the power of that fleet all turning in the same direction can be awesome.

To attend the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) every July, at the beginning of the Microsoft fiscal year, is to get details on Microsoft's navigational plans. That said, with hundreds of sessions and thousands of meetings going on, a partner can spend a full week at the WPC (in Toronto this year) and miss some of the key directional cues.

In an effort to make things clearer for partners at the WPC and for those tracking developments from home, Redmond Channel Partner magazine combed through the titles and abstracts of the 531 sessions that were current as of mid-June to tease out key themes, sessions, buzzwords and more in this series of lists.

9 Big Themes at the WPC
There will always be surprises at the WPC; otherwise, what would be the point of attending? (Oh, yeah, the networking.) Anyway, here are a few major themes you can expect to hear a lot about.

1. Building the Intelligent Cloud: A few years ago, it might have been worth calling out Office 365, Dynamics CRM Online, Microsoft Azure or hybrid cloud as themes. Now, those technologies form the backdrop against which the majority of the sessions are set. Look at almost every session description and it deals with the Microsoft cloud stack in some way. Other technology themes spanning much of the session content, according to a Microsoft spokesperson, include "Reinventing Productivity and Business Processes," "Creating More Personal Computing" and "Digital Transformation."

2. Partner Profitability: Dozens of sessions involve advice, panel discussions and case studies of the ways partners are structuring their businesses to maximize profitability, particularly around the cloud.

3. New Buyer: While we only found one session covering this topic, it's been a recurring talking point out of Microsoft of late. The idea is that as cloud applications become quicker to set up and require, or seem to require, less integration, the IT department no longer has sole ownership of technology spending.

4. M&A: Several sessions at the WPC cover mergers and acquisitions, growth strategies with an exit strategy in mind, and related topics. It's not just Microsoft providing this content. The appetite for M&A sessions is exploding across various vendors' partner conferences.

5. Meet the New Channel Chief: At Microsoft, the channel chief tends to go by the official title of corporate vice president (CVP) of the Worldwide Partner Group (WPG). Gavriella Schuster was named to that role in late June after former channel chief Phil Sorgen moved into a CVP job within the U.S. Enterprise & Partner Group.

Expect some introductions to Schuster at the conference, although she's a familiar figure to partners, having delivered keynotes at the last two WPCs.

In the meantime, Schuster provided her own brief preview of the themes for WPC in an e-mailed statement to RCP: "Meeting with partners throughout the year is one of the highlights of my job, but WPC is really something special and I look forward to it each year. This year I'm personally excited for the opportunity to thank our partners, and to talk with them about what they can do right now to grow their business, and share how Microsoft is investing to connect our partners with customers."

6. LinkedIn Deal: Microsoft's blockbuster deal to buy LinkedIn for $26.2 billion has a lot of implications for partners. It might not be discussed from the main stage, but it will definitely be a topic of conversation in the hallways and around lunch tables.

7. SharePoint: Microsoft unveiled major updates to SharePoint in recent months, and there's a lot of unpacking of partner opportunity to do in the WPC sessions this year.

8. Skype for Business: A lot of sessions cover Microsoft's unified communications offering, a good signal of the strategic importance of the platform for Microsoft in Fiscal Year 2017.

9. Cloud Solution Provider (CSP): The 2015 WPC was the debutante ball for Microsoft's CSP program. While there may be less hype, there are a lot more specifics on CSP coming at the 2016 WPC, including roadmap sessions, details on integrating CSP with a Microsoft practice and educational sessions from Microsoft's CSP distribution partners.

9 Must-See Sessions
If you think of the WPC in terms of the old Microsoft phrase "drinking from the firehose" for getting up to speed at a disorientingly fast rate, this is the group of sessions that forms the core of the conference's infodump.

1. Satya Nadella Vision Keynote: The Microsoft CEO usually kicks off the conference from the big stage, laying out the themes and making some major news announcements.

2. Kevin Turner Vision Keynote: Just as Nadella opens the conference, COO Turner comes in for the big finish. In a presentation usually filled with competitive barbs, kick-in-the-pants motivation and chock-full of Microsoft boosterism, Turner reinforces the themes and sends the crowd home with some chuckles.

[Editor's Note: After this article was published, Microsoft announced that Kevin Turner was leaving the company. Read the article here.]

3. Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) Vision Keynote: In addition to product group keynotes, Microsoft usually provides an MPN keynote filled with program momentum details and programmatic and incentive announcements.

4. Office 365 Roadmap: In the running with Azure for Microsoft's most strategic product is Office 365. Microsoft plans to give partners a detailed roadmap for the Office 365 family of cloud services in a special session.

5. FastTrack: A major source of conflict between Microsoft and partners is Microsoft FastTrack, the controversial program and internal onboarding center to provide customers with free migrations to Office 365 and other cloud products. Microsoft will openly make its case for partner opportunities around FastTrack in a WPC session.

6. SMS&P Enterprise Partner General Session: This is the public session where Microsoft's heavyweight partners, the licensing solution providers (LSPs), get details on how their incentives will work. At recent WPCs, LSPs have generally learned that their incentives were going down. Changes in LSP compensation can push those partners into conflict with smaller partners for services revenues, making the session important beyond the exclusive LSP community.

7. U.S. Field Priorities: The WPC is an international conference, but a plurality of attendees usually comes from the United States. For those U.S. partners, the U.S. field priorities session provides information on Microsoft's co-engagement plans with partners.

8. MPN 101: New partners especially can benefit from an overview session on the MPN. Benefits discussed include internal use rights, technical support, marketing materials and incentives.

9. PIE: Another valuable session for new and experienced partners is an update on the Microsoft Partner Incentive Engine (PIE), which Microsoft describes as a partner's single access point to a pool of $20 million that partners can use for marketing, pilots and deployment programs.

9 Eye-Catching Sessions
These sessions are unlikely to transform anyone's business, but they promise to be entertaining, thought-provoking or both.

1. Trust and the Microsoft Cloud: A year ago Microsoft's top lawyer Brad Smith made his first WPC appearance with a well-received talk about the company's attempts to balance government investigatory requests with customers' privacy expectations. Microsoft is taking the topic further this year with a session on the Microsoft Trusted and National Cloud offerings.

2. #cloudready: A few sessions about "Building a #cloudready Business" (hashtag Microsoft's) require partners to do some homework first. An online cloud self-assessment tool takes 15 minutes and will give attendees some baseline information for the discussion.

3. Partner-to-Partner (P2P) Challenges/Solutions: The cloud tool isn't the only self-assessment tool prepared for the WPC. Microsoft also created a P2P Assessment app for partners to download ahead of the session. The exercise is supposed to help partners step through a P2P Maturity Model. In addition to the assessment-based sessions, Microsoft is also holding sessions encouraging partners to expand into the CRM Online business by teaming up with Dynamics partners.

4. The Dogfood Sessions: Microsoft IT will run several sessions at the WPC explaining how Microsoft's self-described first, best customer uses the company's technologies.

5. Enabling the Journey to Cloud: Julia White, who leads product management of the Microsoft Cloud Platform, will outline the theoretical progression customers could make across Microsoft's stack from on-premises to hybrid to Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) to Platform as a Service (PaaS).

6. The Future of Technology: A Microsoft Distinguished Engineer, James Whittaker, will walk attendees through the history of technology to arrive at "some startling predictions" about Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to the session description.

7. Security Trends: Microsoft Chief Information Security Officer Bret Arsenault is providing an overview of the threats keeping CISOs like himself awake at night, along with a discussion of solutions to help manage those problems.

8. What's Next for Windows 10 Mobile: Anyone looking for specifics in Microsoft's muddy mobile strategy might find a few details in this session. Interestingly, amid many sessions on Microsoft devices, at least one session includes a mention of the Lumia line of smartphones.

9. Pop Culture: A couple of fun session titles could signal good sessions. One is "Business Lessons from the Grateful Dead." The other is "Kirk vs. Spock: How to Make 25th Century Decisions."

5 Coopetition Clues
Some call it coopetition, others call the companies involved frenemies. In any case, they're the tech giants that fight each other in some areas and work together in other ways.

1. Oracle: Some things never change. Microsoft may have taken away the "enemies list" that doesn't allow certain competitors to attend the Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC). But with SQL Server 2016 hitting the market, there's still a session in the WPC catalog about Oracle compete opportunities.

2. AWS: Amazon Web Services doesn't get mentioned by name. But when it comes to a session titled, "Five Success Principles to Compete and Win in IaaS/PaaS Public Cloud," Who Else Would They Be Talking About?

3. Red Hat: Shifting gears from compete to cooperate, Microsoft has several sessions dedicated to strategic alliance vendors. One is open source OS heavyweight Red Hat Inc. Among several sessions, one includes a lot of detail about how partners can leverage the Microsoft-Red Hat alliance.

4. Docker: A few sessions cover Azure Container Services and third-party technologies that work in those containers, such as Docker.

5. Salesforce: In a very specific session, Microsoft is pointing partners to the opportunities in using Power BI with Salesforce.com in order to set up a dashboard that exposes a data warehouse on Azure and Power BI reports on behalf of customers. The same Power BI capabilities are featured in a parallel session involving Dynamics CRM instead of Salesforce.

11 Buzzwords
A cheat sheet for terms you might be hearing from Microsoft for the first time at the WPC.

1. Madeira: It's billed as a project for small companies that have grown beyond simple financial tools but who haven't gotten to the point where they need full-fledged ERP systems.

2. Blockchain: Best known as the underpinning of Bitcoin, Microsoft has a surprisingly deep and wide commitment to blockchain for a number of applications. Blockchain is also referred to as the distributed ledger platform.

3. Microsoft Flow: This is a service for automating workflow across Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products.

4. ASfP: Short for Advanced Support for Partners, ASfP is the newest partner support option, and it lives between MPN Technical Services and Premier Support. There's also a summer promotion to save $2,500 on the first year of ASfP.

5. Skip: A mobile checkout technology, Skip allowscustomers to walk in to a store, scan an item, pay and walk out. "Can an Uber-like experience revitalize retail?" the session description asks.

6. Windows SMB: This isn't exactly a buzzword; it's more like a placeholder for news, as we're not sure what it's called. The session title is "Completing the Stack: New Partner-Managed Service Opportunities for SMBs with Windows." The description reads, "In this session we share details of a NEW Windows offering that has been designed specifically for SMBs and partners with managed service offerings. This new offering will enable simpler access to core security and management features of the Windows operating system for SMBs with more complex IT requirements and sophisticated security needs."

7. Proximity Software: This is an interesting subset of the IoT. A longer name is beacon-based proximity software and the purpose is to retrofit physical spaces for the digital age.

8. R: The language of machine learning, which stands in here for machine learning generally, and both topics will be popping up all over the WPC.

9. HoloLens: The virtual augmentation headgear is still science-fictiony as Microsoft continues to refine the prototypes to get them ready for their first commercial release. HoloLens is sure to be the hot selfie opportunity at the WPC. Having a picture taken with a HoloLens on your head at a Microsoft event is now as obligatory as proof you were there as getting a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

10. Windows as a Service: Microsoft confusingly called its new way of building, deploying and servicing its OS Windows as a Service. People assume that Windows as a Service means Microsoft is delivering Windows the way many customers say they want it -- in a SaaS model. Now Microsoft has had to go back and explain to partners, who can then explain to customers, that it's something different.

11. DevOps: Several sessions are dedicated to explaining the basics and benefits of the DevOps mindset to the broad partner community.

7 Technologies Hitting Prime Time
Buzzwords that have graduated, at least in terms of WPC sessions and Microsoft commitment and focus, to full-fledged partner opportunities with concrete tools, processes and guidance behind them.

1. IoT: The number of sessions about IoT opportunities seems substantially higher than a year ago, with many of them focused on nuts-and-bolts concerns like the capabilities of the Azure IoT Suite.

2. Power BI: The business intelligence-focused cloud service is on the verge of being a theme this year, with sessions on leveraging it on its own, with Dynamics CRM Online, with Salesforce.com and with ERP products, among others.

3. Power Apps: Microsoft's platform for building and deploying custom line-of-business applications is the star of several sessions this time.

4. Azure Stack: The ability for customers to run Azure on-premises was delivered in rough form a few years ago. But the new Azure Stack has much better parity with Microsoft's public cloud offering, leading to new partner opportunities.

[Editor's Note: After this article was published, Microsoft announced at WPC that Azure Stack would not be released until mid-2017. Read the article here.]

5. Cortana Intelligence Suite: Intermingled with machine learning and many other Microsoft technologies, the Cortana Intelligence Suite is a backdrop of many case study-style presentations, as Microsoft moves to ramp up channel understanding of the capabilities.

6. StorSimple: Microsoft bought StorSimple in 2012 and released the Azure StorSimple virtual appliance to complement the physical appliance in 2014. This year, Microsoft is reaching out more aggressively to its channel with sessions designed to both introduce the StorSimple product and provide partnering details.

7. Cloud Platform Immersion Program: The Immersion programs are sales tools that are similar to the old Microsoft Experience Center (MEC) demos that Microsoft's field would often help partners use to give customers a full-stack experience to move a sale to close. Microsoft is running dozens of availabilities at the WPC for partners to get familiar with what a Cloud Platform Immersion Program demo would look like for their customers. Some of the available setups involve SQL Server 2016, Cortana Intelligence Suite, IoT, Enterprise Mobility Suite, System Center 2012 R2, Azure, StorSimple and Office 365.

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