Microsoft’s New Phone System: What It Means to You and the Small Business Telephone Market

…including guest commentary from Anita Campbell, Small Business Trends

Microsoft recently announced a new phone system, specifically geared to smaller businesses. The new phone system, Response Point is comprised of three components:
1. A telephone
2. A base unit to manage the phone system
3. Software installed on a computer to manage system changes
Phone systems have traditionally been the “dark closet” (literally and figuratively) for smaller businesses, however, the telephone industry is paying huge attention to small businesses and the market is getting hotter, especially for phone systems that are IP based and simply connect to the network.
What does this mean to you?

Anita Campbell, Small Business Trends writes – It seems to me that Microsoft’s product is going to appeal to somewhat larger small businesses. Microsoft’s definition of small business is under 50 employees, but from the sounds of this, it strikes me as designed for businesses with at least, say, 10 employees or more. Their emphasis is on ease of adding and changing and moving employees within a networked office.
It does not appear to offer 800-number choices and marketing options that best-of-class voice mail and PBX systems offer today.
I can imagine this solution being recommended by the Microsoft Small Business Specialist consultants who work with businesses of a certain size, but not as likely that anyone would seek it out and install it on their own.
Finally, it strikes me that this may be outside of the Microsoft comfort zone. We will see how that works out. It makes sense from the standpoint of integrating with Outlook contacts and I love the voice activation features tied with Microsoft’s voice activation (a free Windows/Office feature I just love and use regularly when writing my columns). However, is a PBX system really in the Microsoft zone of expertise? Time will tell.

Microsoft’s press release readsMicrosoft designed the “Response Point” software to empower small-business customers to manage system changes themselves. “We know from years of networking experience that many small businesses want an IT specialist to install their networking infrastructure,” said Keith A. Karlsen, executive vice president of D-Link Systems Inc. “But they also want to manage simple things like moves, adds and changes on their own.” With the user-friendly, PC-based “Response Point” management console, tasks such as adding a phone for a new employee or creating a call distribution list can be completed in a couple of minutes.
The “Response Point” phone system software makes the voice communications experience much easier for end users. “The ëResponse Point’ voice commands and speech-enabled auto-attendant will offer users a powerful experience that differs radically from other small-business phone systems on the market,” said Rich Tosi, president of Uniden America Corp. “A small-business employee can press one button on the handset of a cordless phone and then access anyone in the company directory, anyone in his OutlookÆ contacts, and a range of calling features with a few simple words. That is a very powerful user experience.”

The market
For many years, there’s been many traditional PBX vendors such as Altigen, Artisoft, Tek Digitel, Comdial (now Vertical), Avaya. These vendors have shifted and are selling more IP based PBXs.
More companies are selling phone systems which tightly integrate the phone system to the network, such as Microsoft’s Response Point is doing, away from traditional PBXs.
Vendors such as Cisco and 3COM, through partners, sell IP based telephony equipment. One vendor, M5 sells an IP based phone system. There is no, “in-house” PBX but customers outsource their phone system to M5. In fact next week both Cisco and 3Com will be making telephony announcements.
Side view mirror
Let’s not forget Talkswitch, which for years has sold a small telephony appliance for companies who don’t want a full fledged PBX, but do want PBX like functionality. When I really think about it, I think Response Point is going to be competing with Talkswitch quite a bit.
Also in the mirror are companies like Gotvmail, and Innoport which provide virtual telephone systems. Maybe you are not ready to replace your phone system. These services give you an inbound telephone number and extensions. You can then map these extensions to cell phones or existing company phones and have PBX like features without a PBX in your office.
Going back to Microsoft
Microsoft Response Point is for smaller businesses, it also has plans for larger businesses. Cnet writes Earlier this month, Business Division President Jeff Raikes offered more details on Microsoft’s plans to tackle the corporate telephony market. For that market, Microsoft is expanding its Live Communications Server’s corporate instant-messaging product into Office Communications Server, a tool that can also manage large-business phone systems.