Microsoft this week unveiled a partner program for its Office Live hosted service for small businesses, a product Microsoft chief operating officer, Kevin Turner, predicted would one day be nearly as important to the company as its Windows client OS.
Through the program, Microsoft partners get an Office Live software development kit and various training opportunities so they can build new services.
It would be available to subscribers on the Office Live Marketplace, director of partner strategy for Office Live at Microsoft, Marja Koopmans, said. The company unveiled the program at its Worldwide Partner Conference in Denver.
Microsoft had about 50 third-party products listed on the marketplace, Koopmans said. Currently, an Office Live subscriber had to have purchased one of two subscription-based Office Live offerings to buy an application on the marketplace. However, beginning in January, subscribers to the free version of Office Live also could purchase third-party offerings from the marketplace.
Partners also gained access through online forums to Microsoft Office Live engineers for assistance with building new offerings, Koopmans said.
In addition to earning revenue by selling new applications, partners could offer consulting services to build Office Live-based Web sites for small businesses, she said.
Beginning in January 2008, Microsoft would launch an affiliate program for Office Live that would give them revenue-sharing opportunity with Microsoft, Koopmans said.
If partners that sell Office Live-based applications on the marketplace refer a customer to purchase an Office Live subscription, Microsoft will share a percentage of whatever the company earns from that customer with the partner.
The company would disclose the specific percentage as the program is closer to launching, she said.
Microsoft unveiled Office Live in November 2005, and the company is grooming the product -- which gives small businesses tools for building a website as well as Web-based email, instant messaging, collaboration and customer relationship management -- to be one of its top sellers.
In his keynote at the partner conference, Turner said that the hosted service would eventually become one of Microsoft's most popular products alongside long-time top revenue-earners like the Windows client OS and the Office desktop productivity suite.
"We do believe it will reach our top three or four largest deployed applications we have around the world," he said.
That's a tall order, but at least one partner who is offering an application for small legal firms on the Office Live Marketplace said he thought Turner's prediction would come true. "The numbers add up and the demand is there," managing director for Solution Canvas in Glasgow, Scotland, Joe McDermott, said.
It had been traditionally difficult for small businesses to find IT products tailored to them, he said, and Office Live met many of their needs.
More importantly, McDermott said, broadband was now ubiquitous and more people accepted and used online services such as banking, every day. Small businesses were more comfortable going straight to the Web for an IT infrastructure rather than buying and installing products on site themselves.
To improve Office Live, Microsoft in the next two months will enhance the service with more options for subscribers to buy ad words on search engines other than Microsoft's Windows Live Search. Currently, subscribers can use the service's AdManager user interface to buy ad words through AdCenter, Microsoft's paid search platform.
Microsoft would extend that ability to other search engines, though it was not ready to disclose which ones yet, Koopmans said.
In the same time frame, the company would add the ability to build e-commerce sites in Office Live's tool for building websites, she said.