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At the end of last year, rumors were flying that Microsoft was rethinking its commitment to its MVP (Most Valuable Professional) program. But on Wednesday, Microsoft ended that speculation by naming a pool of independent technology experts as MVPs and announcing plans for a 2005 summit for them.

MVPs are experts with knowledge about one or more Microsoft products and technologies. Their job is to help Microsoft support developers and customers via online communities, trade shows and other ways.

Microsoft is holding the MVP headcount steady in 2005, at 2,600, just like it was in 2004, according to company officials. Of these, 173 are first-time MVPs.

But this year’s MVP crew includes more international representatives, as well as experts with knowledge about a broader group of technologies, including ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, Office development technologies and the like.

Microsoft officials said they will hold the 2005 MVP summit—where Microsoft officials privately show off current and future technologies—from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1 in Redmond, Wash., at Microsoft headquarters. More than 1,500 MVPs attended last year’s summit.

Microsoft also has more than 10 regional worldwide MVP summits planned for the coming year, officials said.

Microsoft’s MVP program is now in its eleventh year. In 2003, Microsoft extended its Shared Source program to include qualifying MVPs. In 2004, the company began highlighting MVP blogs on its various product portal pages.

In spite of these steady advances, some MVPs said last fall and winter that they were hearing that Microsoft was wavering in its commitment to the program.

According to these MVPs, who asked not to be named, some company officials thought the company was too ambitious in growing its MVP program. Three years ago, there were about 600 MVPs, according to one program participant’s estimates, but now there are more than four times as many.

“The selection process seemed to be a check to see if they had a warm body, and if so, they were awarded [MVP status],” said one MVP. “Obviously, they ended up with a few not-so-professional participants.”

Read the full story on Microsoft Watch: Microsoft Continues to Back MVP Program