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Crystal balls aside, a serious business question was posed at the kick off panel debate at Gartner Channel Vision 2007 in Palm Springs yesterday: What will the channel look like in 2010?

The panel of experts including executives from Oracle, Microsoft, Ingram and a range of solution providers lead by Gartner research director Tiffani Bova, answered with two main themes: SAAS (software as a service) and partner collaboration.

Rauline Ochs, senior vice president North American alliances and channels at Oracle, stressed the importance SAAS will play in the channel’s future.

“We have been pushed by our customers to get SAAS up and running. All of the big software vendors are doing this now, some are further ahead than others, but most are attempting it,” she said. “Solution providers should not look at SAAS as a threat to their business model, but as an opportunity with a low barrier to entry. The other thing that customers and partners are pushing us to do is think vertically and provide business problem solutions.”

Patrick McNicholas, president and managing partner of Maverick Computer, agreed.

“SAAS is the future. Even if it is not a solution provider’s main business now, having it as an element of their business will boost profits and revenues going into 2010.”

Bova asked McNicholas why his company had decided to go the ‘bill not buy’ route for its customers. His answer was simple: “We make more money that way,” he said.

Michael Haines, general manager, U.S. partner strategy at Microsoft, said access to technology and marketing going into the future would be challenging. “Partners are scared; they are concerned that there will simply not be enough talent out there to grow their business going forward. They will not be able to recruit to grow,” he said.

This would drive more collaboration between partners, he added. “It is vital that partners understand how to partner with each other better, that way they don’t have to necessarily recruit; they can effectively share resources.”

Justin Crotty, vice president of services North America at Ingram Micro, agreed. He said Ingram has helped to facilitate 90,000 partnerships.

“The independent investment in infrastructure that solution providers are making is unsustainable,” he said. “In the future, VARs need to understand that if it is not core to their business then off load it; partner with another VAR to get the job done.”