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By Kevin McLaughlin, CRN Aug. 18, 2013

Microsoft is expanding its Office 365 licensing to let VARs own and manage the billing relationship with enterprise customers, Bryan Von Axelson, Microsoft’s senior partner technical strategist for cloud, said Sunday at the opening of XChange 2013 in Washington. D.C.

Starting Sept. 1, Microsoft partners will be able to sell enterprise SKUs through Office 365 Open, a program that lets VARs bill customers directly for cloud services. The SKUs include E1, E3, the Exchange-only option and Office 365 ProPlus, the version that installs locally but is sold through a monthly subscription./

“You asked, we delivered,” Von Axelson told XChange attendees. “We are enabling you to own that billing relationship and have the flexibility that many of you requested.”

Microsoft added midmarket SKUs to Office 365 Open in February, but until now, partners could only steer enterprise customers to Microsoft and get a commission, under what Microsoft calls its Advisor model. In that arrangement, Microsoft controls the billing relationship.

Adding enterprise SKUs to the mix is a big deal because it gives partners more incentive to embrace the Microsoft cloud story.

[highlight type=”one”]Bob Venero, CEO of Future Tech, a Holbrook, N.Y.-based Microsoft partner, sees the change as a sign that Microsoft has confidence in the channel’s ability to drum up enterprise business.[/highlight]

[highlight type=”one”]”From my perspective, it’s an olive branch for the channel,” Venero told CRN.” It’s going to be a big play for my salespeople, and it means we’re going to be having more discussions with Microsoft.”[/highlight]

[highlight type=”one”]It’s also a “breath of fresh air” after the ill will stemming from Microsoft’s unwillingness to let the channel sell Surface tablets, Venero said.[/highlight]

Office 365 Open was Microsoft’s bid to quiet the angst that had simmered in the channel since it launched the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) of cloud apps in 2008, along with the Advisor model. Microsoft took control of billing BPOS customers, and for years, resisted partners’ calls for it to be abolished.

Cloud is “critically important” to Microsoft and will represent 40 percent of the software giant’s business in fiscal 2013, or twice as much as it did in fiscal 2013, Von Axelson said. “The cloud is your enabler to deliver your services to customer devices and endpoints,” he said.

Microsoft spends $6 billion annually on channel related business, and 2013, it plans to unite several separate initiatives under the SMB Champions Club program, Eric Martorano, senior director of Microsoft’s U.S. SMB channel group, said at the event.