Microsoft kicked off its annual Worldwide Partners Conference (WPC) on Monday with pomp and circumstance around its upcoming product wave, which will include a so-called "trifecta" launch around Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2, and Exchange Server 2010, as well as a related set of Office 2010 products and services. Last week, I mentioned several questions I had for the software giant, and as I write this, the WPC is just barely underway and we have a few answers. Here's what I've learned this week so far.

Partners, partners, partners. As you might expect at WPC, Microsoft really pushed the relationship it has with its partners. And of course as we discussed last week, this is more important than ever because of Microsoft's increasing inroads into markets that it had traditionally left solely to its partners. As noted in the WPC keynote, however, things change, and Microsoft isn't the only company that has to evolve to meet these changes head-on.

"We're in a different world with different opportunities," Microsoft corporate vice president Allison Watson said succinctly, announcing the formation of the new Microsoft Partner Network (MPN), which replaces the old Microsoft Partner Program. Semantics aside, the MPN is really about addressing the changing roles Microsoft and its partners will undertake in this shifting climate. 

Partners will be categorized in four levels of membership: Community, Subscription, Competency, and Advanced Competency. (Previously, there were three, the familiar Gold Certified, Certified, and Registered.) The Competency level is getting a huge bump in the number of certifications it offers, from 17 to 30, a reflection of the way the market has expanded.

The MPN kicks in around October. But if you're one of Microsoft's partners, now is the time to see how the program is changing and how you can best take advantage of it.

Office 2010. On the first day of WPC, Office 2010 was the star of the show. Microsoft released the Technical Preview of Office 2010 to a limited set of testers and will deliver a beta version later in the year, along with a beta version of its long-awaited Office Web Applications. A Windows Mobile version of Office 2010, dubbed Office Mobile 2010, will ship alongside the other products in early 2010 as well, Microsoft says.

The big news with the Office 2010 suite is that all of the applications have moved over to a refined version of the ribbon UI that debuted in Office 2007. Beyond that, most of what I've seen in the suite is logical evolution. You can find out more about this product in my lengthy overview on the SuperSite for Windows.

Windows 7. With many expecting the release-to-manufacturing announcement at WPC, this week's announcements might be somewhat of a disappointment. (My sources tell me that Microsoft has indeed finalized Windows 7--and its sister product Windows Server 2008 R2--but that it will take several days, or perhaps a few weeks, before they sign off on it.) But there was still some Windows 7 news of note.

Key was the announcement that Microsoft's volume-licensing customers would receive the OS early, on September 1. Additionally, Microsoft is offering a limited time, six-month promotion for business customers during which Windows 7 Professional will be at least 15 percent less than the comparable price for Windows Vista.

More to come. It's early in the week yet, so there's more to come, I'm sure. Will there be Server, Windows Mobile, and Azure news? Stay tuned....

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