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Sitting in the Canadian Lounge on the show floor at this week’s Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto, MSP business consultant (and my fellow MSP Help Desk blogger) Stuart Crawford observed to me that the crowd of some 16,000 people who had descended on my hometown was surprisingly missing one rather large audience one would expect to be everywhere at a show like this.

While the event featured plenty of resellers, DMRs, hosting partners, developers, and various sundry other categories of partners that make up the biggest of big tent channel programs that is the Microsoft Partner Network, there were surprisingly few true managed service providers in attendance.

The observation came as a surprise to me. But looking around, I realized Crawford was right. It seemed an odd disconnect to me – after all, the majority of managed service providers spend a great deal of their time managing the software titan’s products for their customers. But they don’t feel close enough to Redmond to join the Microsoft Partner Network or make their way to WPC each July?

I brought up the subject with Julie Bennani, worldwide general manager of the Microsoft Partner Network. And it would seem she’s aware of the disconnect that Crawford noted to me.

“We’re in a really good place from a hosting partner perspective, but not from an MSP perspective,” she said. “There a lot of MSPs who aren’t working closely with Microsoft, and we could do a much better job explicitly connecting with them and addressing their needs.”

In fact, not only had Bennani noticed the lack of MSPs in her partner program, she’s already taken action on it. She said she has tasked Ross Brown, one of her top lieutenants, with figuring out ways to make the MPN more attractive to managed service providers. It’s one of her top priorities for the company’s just-begun fiscal 2013, she said.

It may not have been a move explicitly linked to making itself more attractive to MSPs, but we saw a move that will certainly turn the heads of MSPs at WPC. Anyone who’s followed the software giant at all in recent years knows that Office 365, the Microsoft-hosted version of its Exchange, Sharepoint and Lync offerings, is kind of a big deal for Redmond.

And while the company has brought on thousands of partners into the Office 365 fold, it hasn’t gotten as far as it would have liked because it has insisted that partners give up the billing relationship with customers for Office 365.

But at WPC, the company finally gave in to the years of complaints from partners around the world, announcing Office 365 Open, a program that will allow its partners to directly bill their own customers for Office 365, and then remit a monthly fee for Microsoft.

For the first time, Microsoft partners are free to set their own price point for the company’s cloud-based collaboration tools, or to blend Office 365 fees into the monthly bill they present their customers for their overall managed services offering. For partners focused on owning the customer relationship and delivering fully managed IT solutions to customers, it’s a major change in posture for Microsoft.

Carl Fransen, president of Calgary, Alta.-based CTECH Group, said the move will allow MSPs to “easily include Office 365 into our everyday product offerings,” and equates to Microsoft “saying to MSPs that they are serious about this product,” because for the first time, he and his peers will be able to integrate Office 365 into their overall managed desktop solution, seamlessly including the Microsoft product with their own service and support offerings.

Darren Bibby, vice president for software and alliances research at analyst firm IDC, noted that Office 365 is likely to draw a large number of new partners into the Office 365, partners “for whom there weren’t economics in the past.”

But as with anything, where there are challenges, there are opportunities, and vice versa. While MSPs will be able to integrate Office 365 into their offerings, those who are already including third-party Hosted Exchange offerings into their solutions may feel some pressure as a result of increased competition with Redmond itself.

What can Microsoft do to make itself more attractive to managed service providers? We’d love to hear your thoughts on what Redmond should focus on to make itself more interesting to you.