Microsoft’s Inspire 2020 global partner conference this week may have been online-only, but partners seeking fresh inspiration should have had no trouble finding it during the myriad keynotes and sessions this week.
The conference included multiple appearances by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella along with addresses by Channel Chief Gavriella Schuster and Judson Althoff, Microsoft’s executive vice president for worldwide commercial business.
Though executives struck a sensitive tone about the challenges many partners are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, there was still plenty of attention paid to the opportunities ahead with Microsoft—including in fast-growing areas such as Teams, Windows Virtual Desktop and Azure.
When it comes to Microsoft’s infrastructure “across the cloud and the edge,” there is an “incredible impact our partners and customers can have with it,” Nadella said during his remarks at Inspire.
Microsoft executives also honed in on the specific opportunities they see for each category of partner, while pointing to an intentional hiatus on significant changes for partners around incentives and programs.
What follows are our 10 biggest takeaways from Microsoft Inspire 2020.
Nadella’s Partner Focus
At Inspire, Nadella offered a half-hour keynote address and then later made a second appearance to answer questions posed by Schuster.
“For Microsoft to do well, you all as partners have to do well. That’s ingrained in our business model,” Nadella said during the conversation with Schuster. “That’s why I always talk about us being a partner-led company.”
Ultimately, Microsoft’s intertwining technology focus areas offer “a tremendous opportunity for our partners--because I think the architectural coherence of our tech stack and our solution areas make us so much more relevant as an ecosystem to our customers,” Nadella said.
That’s never been more the case than during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where “digital technology and transformation is key,” he said.
“I would say, digital tech intensity is key to both resilience as well as transformation,” Nadella said. “And that’s what you see with the partner opportunity, in fact. Partners are able to work with businesses, both [to] create that business continuity and transformation.”
Nadella spoke more directly to partners this year than in previous years at Inspire, when the focus was mostly on discussing Azure and other platforms, said Miguel Zamarripa, CIO of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Simpleworks IT.
“His message was more partner-focused this time around,” Zamarripa said in an email to CRN. “It was encouraging to hear Satya say they’re ‘doubling their efforts’ around partner engagement and inclusion toward the overall vision and strategy of Microsoft.”
On the whole, “it was great to hear Gavriella and Satya [describe Microsoft] as a partner-led company, and acknowledge the important role that Microsoft partners and managed service providers have in this ever-changing digital world,” Zamarripa said.
Emphasis On Teams
While demand for Microsoft’s remote-work solutions such as the Teams collaboration app has surged, “adoption is only part of the opportunity here,” said Schuster, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s One Commercial Partner organization, during her remarks at Inspire. “What’s truly transformative is what happens when customers start working in Teams and learn the full value of Microsoft 365 as a secure, remote work collaboration solution.”
Nadella also discussed some of the new and forthcoming updates for Teams during his Inspire keynote, including “Together Mode,” which is expected to launch in general availability in August.
“Together Mode is a new experience in Teams that uses AI to digitally place participants in a shared background. This makes it feel like you’re sitting in the same room--reducing background distractions [and making] it easier to pick up the nonverbal cues that we miss,” Nadella said. “So conversations are much more natural--and more importantly, more inclusive. Our research shows that the brain exerts less effort when participating in a meeting using the Together Mode, compared to the standard grid view.”
During another session at Inspire, Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, said that Microsoft is outpacing collaboration competitors in part through its rapid development of Teams.
“We’re closing important feature gaps and solving pain points to surge ahead of the competition,” Spataro said.
Emphasis On Windows Virtual Desktop
This was the first Inspire conference since Microsoft introduced its Azure-based virtual desktop solution, Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD). Like Teams, WVD has seen a spike in demand with the shift to remote work--and Schuster pointed to the solution as another main opportunity for partners going forward.
“With WVD, organizations can get up and running in minutes from the Azure portal. You have the flexibility to choose the virtual machines, the regional locations, and you can set up multi sessions for the users,” Schuster said. “You can even manage that environment and turn it into a managed service opportunity, without much heavy lifting. Especially if you team up with a partner like Nerdio. They’ve developed tools specifically for partners, for both SMB- and enterprise-focused partners, that can help you begin to deploy a WVD environment in only 60 seconds, and deploy a complete desktop in just a few hours.”
Additionally, “when you add on VMware and Citrix for hybrid environments, you have an end-to-end, hybrid solution for your customers,” she said.
In connection with Inspire 2020, Microsoft announced new hybrid migration, data, security and compliance, and developer offerings around the Azure cloud platform. The products and services include the next generation of Azure Stack HCI, new Azure Migrate features and Azure Lighthouse security enhancements, and third-party connectors for Azure Sentinel, Microsoft’s security information and event management offering.
For Azure Lighthouse—which provides Azure management capabilities to managed services providers, and originally launched at Inspire last year—Microsoft unveiled new additions including multifactor authentication and privileged identity management support for just-in-time access.
In answer to partner requests, Azure Lighthouse will now enable partners to reduce risk from standing elevated access, strengthen authentication methods and match customers’ compliance and risk management requirements, according to Microsoft.
“It was great to hear about the enhancements to Azure Lighthouse [around] the multi-factor authentication and identity management platform,” Zamarripa said. “We’re excited to take this to our customer base.”
Accelerating The Cloud Shift
In his keynote at Inspire, Althoff said he sees an increasing role for partners to play in the accelerated shift to cloud that is going on now.
“If it looked good to get out of your data center, pre-COVID, it looks really good to get out of your data center now. The growth of the cloud is still very important to helping customers achieve these economic goals,” Althoff said. “Our solution areas, our cloud capabilities--from modern workplace through security, business applications, apps and infrastructure, data and AI--across Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Azure, these are the ingredients that will help customers persevere in these difficult times.”
Ultimately, “the world now needs us more than ever before. And I’m counting on all of you as our partners to help make that happen,” he said. “Whether you have the consulting practices that bring these virtual solutions to life, or the assets and intellectual property as an ISV or a SaaS provider--we need your help to address customers’ needs, now more than ever.”
The “New” Microsoft
Among the other notable product announcements at Inspire 2020 was Dynamics 365 Customer Voice, which aims to improve customer responses by enabling organizations to incorporate feedback into their customer view in real time.
The product announcement is “emblematic of the ‘new’ Microsoft,” in that it “tells a story” about where Microsoft is going, said Reed Wiedower, CTO of Washington, D.C.-based New Signature, an Azure Expert MSP partner of Microsoft.
“Previously, Microsoft had built a voice of the customer solution, and attached it to Dynamics, for collecting feedback from customers. It was separate from everything else in Dynamics 365, and didn’t use the capabilities inside of Microsoft 365 or Azure,” Wiedower said in an email to CRN. “Microsoft announced it was being deprecated last year, and directed customers to use ‘Forms’ instead. Although this was a useful solution, Forms as a product was in its infancy.”
Thus, “it was great to see the new Customer Voice announced because it became clear that on the backend, it’s still using the new framework Forms introduced, but supercharged to allow easier [customer satisfaction score] collection for organizations,” he said.
“This gets to the heart of the new solution: regardless of whether it is built upon Azure in the backend, or Microsoft 365, or Dynamics 365, it solves a useful customer problem and is easy to jump into,” Wiedower said. “This is part of the larger shift – just as services inside of Office 365 are now part of Microsoft 365, services that are part of the other two clouds are getting broadly positioned as ‘Microsoft’ which is great. Customers don’t understand the difference between Microsoft’s three cloud platforms, so being able to simply say ‘Microsoft’ makes it easier for partners and customers. Certainly, I’d expect to see products still named ‘Azure X’ or ‘Dynamics X’--but over time, I would expect the entire brand to be simplified.”
Managed Services Transition
While Microsoft has been emphasizing the importance of partners shifting to managed services for years, executives took a more insistent tone at Inspire 2020.
“I’ve had so many conversations with partners, who’ve been putting off the transition into cloud and managed services, as well as monthly subscription billing,” Schuster said. “Now is the time. This is the opportunity--when you can meet customers where they are.”
“For years I’ve heard your concerns about how to transition your books from up-front revenue to subscription service, and you’re worried about disappointing your investors,” Schuster said, noting that she has heard partners say, “If my customer is willing to pay me up front, do I really want to transition from projects into monthly payment service schedules?”
“But today, with customers uneasy about these big up-front costs, you can develop a managed service practice, build a monthly, and show up as a hero to the customer,” she said. “I know the reason you haven’t gone there is because you’re going to have a dip in revenue. And the question is how quickly you can fill that dip with new customers. But my question back to you is, what happens if you don’t take this step? Now may be the time. Maybe this year, your investors are expecting a little less from you, and the customers are asking for monthly terms. You can make the investment into managed services that will help your customers and build your business long-term. And if you don’t have the resources for all the support, this is a great opportunity to partner together.”
Opportunities By Partner Type
At Inspire 2020, Schuster also recommended specific opportunities to focus on for each category of partner that Microsoft works with.
For VARs, “your best bet in FY21 will be to go all-in with Teams, Power Apps and [Dynamics 365] Business Central--with many of the customers’ apps or backups running in Azure,” Schuster said. “That’s really our partnership at its best--utilizing the full technology stack, and using all three clouds out to the edge, to maximize what you can do for the customer. And the great thing is, if you don’t have the resources or expertise to manage that all yourself, there are many partners in our ecosystem lined up to be your backend support services for the customer.”
For hosters and outsourcers, “because you’re already providing managed services to customers, now is the time to take it to the cloud, or add Azure in with hybrid services. And a great way to get started is with both our Azure-VMware solution, and the data center migration program. You get the customer going down the migration path with minimal change on their side,” Schuster said. “And when you couple that with Azure Arc, you have a consistent management and governance platform across the customer’s entire hybrid estate. Beyond infrastructure, Windows Virtual Desktop is another great area of focus over the next year. Lighting up remote-work capabilities and helping customers manage those end-user experiences and their devices is a huge step forward.”
For telecom partners, “if your primary business is about connecting people, then Teams is an obvious opportunity,” she said. “With Teams, we’re enhancing the capabilities of meetings and adding advanced voice features that more deeply integrate with your voice services.”
And for systems integrators and MSPs, “looking ahead, the Azure Migration Program remains our hero program for customer migration around the world--including new workloads with Windows Virtual Desktops for remote work and .NET apps for website migration,” Schuster said. “And we’re committed to bringing you more customer opportunities in the year ahead through investments in our large-scale ‘in-a-day’ workshops and solution assessments. What I’d love to see from you--if you’re not already doing it--is building practices in two of the fastest-growing workloads: data analytics and AI, and Windows Virtual Desktops. Those are key areas where you can make a big difference.”
Minimizing Changes For Partners
One thing that Inspire 2020 notably did not include was any major upheaval over changes for partners, akin to Microsoft’s decision a year ago to stop providing partners with internal use rights on its products (an unpopular decision that was later rescinded).
That was intentional, Schuster said in an interview with CRN. In the wake of the internal use rights incident, Microsoft overhauled its approach to instituting significant channel changes, and “instituted a series of checkpoints so that we would not leave partners out in the cold,” she said. Additionally, the company decided to “minimize” significant changes for partners amid the current health and economic crisis, Schuster said.
“At this point we’ve said, let’s only do small changes—things that don’t require much on the part of the partner to participate in. Even on our incentives, we tried to minimize the incentive changes year over year. Because it’s just a lot for a partner to take in—at a time when they’re just trying to keep the business going,” she said. “We tried to just say, let’s focus on building business this year as opposed to changing things.”
Growing During A Pandemic
Even as Inspire was taking place on Wednesday, Microsoft also reported the financial results from the fourth quarter of its fiscal 2020--which saw revenue grow 13 percent year-over-year, beating Wall Street analyst expectations.
“The biggest resonance for me came actually at the end of the day, post-Inspire, when Microsoft released their Q4 numbers,” Wiedower said. “Other than a slight sag to search/LinkedIn, they continued to have incredible amounts of growth, during the pandemic, which was really eye-opening.”
Microsoft “talked a great game during the keynotes and sessions, but seeing those number really drilled home the point that Microsoft is one of the few organizations able to both solve unpredictable business challenges when they arise, but to also not be impacted negatively financially as they do it,” Wiedower said. “Few other groups could make money, while helping organizations with life-saving (and company saving) challenges.”