When Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) launches Office 365 business upgrades on Feb. 27, most pundits expect Google Apps to counter the launch party. But channel partners should keep an eye on another emerging contender: IBM's SmartCloud Docs, which launched in December 2012.

IBM PartnerWorld 2013 (Feb. 25-28, Las Vegas) could be a prime stage for the technology giant to update its SaaS-based productivity suite. IBM is seeking five types of channel partners for SmartCloud Docs:

  1. Resellers
  2. Systems integrators
  3. Conference Service Providers
  4. Independent Software Vendors 
  5. Telecommunications and Internet Service Providers

Google Apps and Office 365 dominate most conversations about SaaS-based productivity applications. But nimble rivals like Zoho also have momentum, and IBM could carve out its own niche.

IBM Global Services, for instance, has deep relationships with Global 2000 companies. As those companies weigh upgrades from legacy Microsoft Office suites to the new Office 2013, it could provide an inflection point for IBM to pitch SmartCloud Docs.

Still, I'm not entirely convinced SmartCloud Docs will catch on with IBM's channel partners. IBM's most successful partners typically focus on business analytics, high-end servers, middleware and security. Will those partners give SmartCloud Docs a look? We'll be asking during IBM PartnerWorld.