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It is no secret Microsoft is putting a tremendous effort behind trying to get its products into the doors of small and medium businesses. And in many respects, the software giant is emphasizing the “small” part of this equation, which it equates to companies with 50 employees or less, and that undoubtedly is the toughest market to crack.

The reason is that no one company on this rung of the business ladder has the exact same technology needs as another. In fact, many disregard the advancements technology can bring to their businesses altogether. They also have small budgets, demand an immediate ROI and don’t have the time, money or resources for any extensive rollout period or in-depth training program. And, oh yea, the only way to reach them is through the solution provider channel.

So the goal here is to have affordable products that address a variety of business needs and can be easily deployed and used. The linchpin is that VARs have to be encouraged to sell them, and the only way to do that is to make these products available exclusively through the channel while proving there is a strong value-added services component going forward and future opportunities.

After meeting with Cynthia Bates, Microsoft U.S. general manager for small business, I walked away feeling the company has effectively addressed all these areas with the recent enhancements to its Open Value program.

Now before everyone gets their knickers in a twist because I am applauding Microsoft, hear me out first. I am not here debating security holes, product delays, which cause IT buying hang-ups, nor unnecessary features in operating systems. I am also not saying other companies, such as SAP, haven’t come a long way to create a real and solid value proposition for VARs in the SMB space with innovative and value-based programs that should succeed.

However, what I am saying is that Microsoft’s latest salvo across the SMB bow, appears to be a comprehensive package for these companies looking to embrace technology to run their organizations more efficiently and a real service opportunity for the channel.

The enhancements to Open Value center primarily around offering SMBs a cheaper and easier way to purchase and license Windows XP, Small Business Server and Office 2003 under just one SKU. The program emphasizes that this is an easier way for SMBs to manage their IT purchases, includes upgrade rights to Vista, lax payment terms and more than a 20 percent discount, according to Bates. “We are always looking at ways on how to make it as easy to purchase products for SMBs,” she said.

Affordability, ease of deployment and billing flexibility will all resonate loudly in the SMB space.

Microsoft bundles up for SMB channel blitz. Click here to read more.

To entice the channel, Microsoft is continuing full steam ahead with its SMB Specialist program, training solution providers specifically in the sales and marketing and networking areas. The company currently has about 1,000 channel partners that have gone through the program and the goal, which is set pretty high, is to have 15,000 in about a year’s time, according to Bates.

This would include the 6,000 partners that have previously shown a commitment to Microsoft’s SMB solutions, which at some point will be given a simplified course that will move them up to be SMB Specialists. SMB Specialists get search priority on Microsoft’s Web site when companies are looking for channel partners in their area.

There are also many opportunities for additional services revenue for the channel with this latest promotion, including upgrades, networking, integration and ongoing support. There can also be a managed services component if that is what the VAR is building his business model around.

In my view, Microsoft is indeed taking the SMB market seriously, specifically the small part of that market. The company seems to be making a big attempt to package their products affordably and make licensing easier. Microsoft also realizes the only way to do this is through the channel and by training, educating and providing solution partners with future services opportunities.

Elliot Markowitz is editor at large for the Channel Insider. He is also Editorial Director for Ziff Davis Internet’s eSeminars. He can be reached at