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Microsoft Corp. made good this week on earlier promises to overhaul its online collaboration system for partners, a move some analysts and channel members say has been sorely needed for some time now.

The new Microsoft Partner Channel Builder online tool, which was released to Gold Certified partners during the first half of January, entered general availability on Monday.

“The tool makes it a lot easier to find listings of various types of partners, based on what you’re looking for,” said Jim Whitney, director of business alliances at ConfigureSoft Inc., one of the Gold partners that has helped Microsoft to develop the tool, starting with an early set of focus groups.

“Microsoft has spent a lot of time architecting and rearchitecting this tool, and it’s been a huge undertaking to get it right,” Whitney said. “I think that it’s been improving greatly, and that it’s actually quite useful at this point.”

“There’s been a fair amount of partner-to-partner communication going on anyway, but this [tool] provides a structured way for finding other partners on the Web,” said Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions for Microsoft.

Microsoft’s new tool goes hand-in-hand with a channel reorganization effort that categorizes partners as Gold, Certified or Registered. Partners can earn points to qualify for these designations in any of 11 different disciplines.

Click here to read about Microsoft partners’ response to Visual Studio.

Through use of Microsoft’s new partner database—and its collaborative front end—partners can search for each other by a number of different criteria, including name, geography or solution.

An SI (systems integrator), approached by a prospective customer for a highly specific sort of Web site, might look for partners in areas including networking, databases and Web site design, DeGroot said.

“Now, the SI won’t need to turn down the job immediately if he doesn’t have all the needed skills available, or he doesn’t know who to call,” he said. “He can tell the customer, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’”

Searches won’t be limited to technology partners, either, DeGroot said. A small ISV with a promising solution for the banking industry might hunt for marketing partners that can help put it in front of big financial customers.

The tool’s front end is also designed to make it easier for partners to read about each other’s practices and respond to project requests.

The new offering helps place Microsoft’s partner program light years ahead of where it used to be, some observers say.

“What Microsoft used to have up there [on the Web] was really pretty ugly,” according to Scott Braden, who worked for several Microsoft partners before launching an independent consultancy dubbed “The Licensing Geek.”

Microsoft’s previous online partner listings were harder to search, and were targeted more at customers than at other partners, according to DeGroot.

“Also, [the listings] were voluntary,” the analyst added. In the past, Microsoft provided no mechanism for corroborating partners’ claims. “Anybody could say they were an SQL Server data specialist, [or] a security specialist, even if they weren’t.”

To read about Oracle’s focus on channel repair, click here.

Although all Microsoft partners can use the new tool, Microsoft is only posting information about Gold and Certified partners, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

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