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TORONTO — Microsoft’s channel partners here grilled Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) chieftain Doug Burgum more pointedly than did lawyers in the Oracle/PeopleSoft antitrust trial.

Burgum kicked off the opening day of Microsoft’s annual worldwide partner conference with an open, hour-and-a-half question and answer session. And questioners were not shy about expressing their concerns about Microsoft’s partner-program directions involving MBS.

A number of partners voiced publicly their disenchantment with Microsoft’s efforts over the past year to bring MBS under the auspices of its “classic” partner program.

Partners asked Burgum for clarification on Microsoft’s attempt to steer them into vertical markets, as well as about its MBS pricing policies vis-à-vis those of its competitors.

In late June, Burgum took the stand as a witness in the Department of Justice vs. Oracle trial over Oracle’s attempt to acquire PeopleSoft.

There were surprisingly few partner questions pertaining to the trial —
and Microsoft’s admission during the proceeding that it had held potential merger talks with SAP. Some company watchers said the talks proved that Redmond had designs on the high-end ERP market, contrary to its claims. But Burgum told partner confab attendees that Microsoft was interested in SAP because Redmond wanted to tie Office more tightly into SAP, rather than because it wanted to acquire and sell enterprise-level ERP software.

Burgum characterized himself as “an unwilling participant” in the trial. “We don’t care” whether Oracle buys PeopleSoft, he claimed. “That’s their gig.”

The most unusual “question” during the Q&A session came in the form of a song from a Seattle-based independent-software-vendor (ISV). The ISV sung a commentary on Microsoft’s channel changes to the tune of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” The gist? The ISV was none too happy about the direction that Great Plains has taken in the past couple of years since Microsoft bought the company.

The first couple of years after Microsoft bought Great Plains in 2002, Burgum and, his team focused on trying to integrate the MBS elements into the larger Microsoft organization. But now, “our jobs today are to transform Microsoft into a global leader in applications,” Burgum told attendees.

Another partner complained that as a result of price cuts and packaging changes made by SAP, Microsoft’s Axapta and Navision ERP products are losing their competitive edge. Burgum said Microsoft was looking into the issue.

Burgum’s overriding message to partners was that it’s time to stop digging their heels in the sand, and instead to embrace change. He said that without change, the MBS partners wouldn’t be able to enjoy the same advantages as Microsoft’s other integrators, resellers and ISVs.

“People can worry so much about whether the rules are going to change that they quit playing the game,” Burgum told Saturday afternoon keynote attendees.

In response to a couple of questions regarding Microsoft’s attempts to encourage partners to hone their vertical, rather than horizontal, expertise, Burgum asserted that “there are still opportunities for (ISVs) to fill horizontal gaps in Microsoft’s product line.”

Burgum became visibly emotional following a question on Microsoft’s decision this summer to close its Findlay, Ohio, facility and outsource much of its Solomon development and support to startup Plumbline Solutions.

Burgum said the decision to eliminate 140 of the 177 jobs in Findlay was one of his toughest, but that Microsoft is till committed to supporting the Solomon financials through 2013.

“I could have just shut down Findlay and outsourced the whole thing to India,” Burgum said. Instead, Microsoft found a way to guarantee most of the employees jobs and to hold onto the Solomon intellectual property.