Ballmer, Branson headline Microsoft's partner conference

Worldwide Partner Conference hits Los Angeles next week

Windows Phone, cloud and office product updates on tap from Microsoft.

We may learn a lot about the future of Microsoft's many product lines next week.

The company's Worldwide Partner Conference is hitting Los Angeles from Sunday to Thursday, with keynote speeches from CEO Steve Ballmer, several top executives and, just for fun, Virgin Group founder and gallivanting billionaire Richard Branson.

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Ballmer will deliver a keynote address Monday morning in front of 15,000 attendees at the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers, and on Tuesday Microsoft will trot out several of its highest-ranking executives.

These include Satya Nadella, the new head of servers and tools; Andrew Lees, head of mobile; and Kurt DelBene, head of Microsoft Office.

This lineup of speakers suggests possible updates on Windows Azure, Windows Server, Windows Phone 7, Office and Office 365.

While Windows President Steven Sinofsky recently detailed plans for Windows 8, Microsoft's attempt to compete against the iPad, he will not be making a keynote appearance at WPC. However, Windows and Windows Live Senior Director Erwin Visser will deliver a keynote, and the long list of speakers includes executives from just about every product group as well as partner-focused divisions such as OEM sales, developer groups, hosting, telcos, ISVs and channel strategy.

Naturally, the Partner Conference focuses heavily on how software, hardware and hosting vendors can work with Redmond to sell products and services based on Microsoft software.

Microsoft directly and indirectly contributes to more than $500 billion in annual revenue across the IT industry, including partner services and software built on top of Windows, according to an IDC study sponsored by Microsoft.

Microsoft has to tread carefully to avoid conflicts with partners, though. Both Windows Azure and Office 365 have raised concerns about Microsoft cutting into partners' revenue streams, but those concerns have been eased somewhat by new partnerships with telcos to sell services based on Office 365.

After the serious keynotes on Monday and Tuesday, the Staples Center will host Richard Branson -- make that, Sir Richard Branson -- as Microsoft's guest speaker. Attendees can submit questions in advance to Branson, who will speak in a Q&A-style interview with Microsoft channel chief Jon Roskill.

Branson, who was knighted in 1998, has led an exciting life. As described by Microsoft's WPC site, "Sir Richard Branson has been involved in a number of world record-breaking attempts since 1985. In 1986 his boat, 'Virgin Atlantic Challenger II,' crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the fastest ever recorded time. This was followed a year later by a hot air balloon crossing of the same ocean in 'Virgin Atlantic Flyer.' In 2004, Sir Richard launched Virgin Unite to tackle tough challenges facing the world. Sir Richard pledged 100 percent of profits of Virgin transportation companies to clean tech investments, and this year he launched the Carbon War Room to mobilize capital, innovation, expertise and entrepreneurs to advance climate change efforts."

Branson is also planning to launch a commercial space tourism business. But, for at least the next few days, he will have to remain earthbound.

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

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