Microsoft Response Point Answers the Call

Review: Microsoft's VOIP system for SMBs boasts a few glitzy next-generation features that make the system incredibly easy to use, and comes in an appliance form factor that makes the system a snap to deploy.

In his keynote speech at CES 2008, Bill Gates indicated that a primary focus during the next digital decade will be to connect people, and that key elements of these experiences will be high-definition media, superior network connectivity and natural user interfaces.

When held to this standard, Microsoft Response Point, the firm's new VOIP (voice over IP) software platform for small and midsize businesses, certainly delivers on the first of the three criteria, boasting a natural user interface on a scale I've not seen from any VOIP system-no matter the cost or target audience.

Each Response Point phone has a blue Response Point button which, when pressed, allows the user to place calls (internal or external), check voice mail, or park, transfer or conference calls by verbally telling the system what to do. It's a stunning use of speech recognition technology that is brain dead simple to learn.

Additionally, the system can be used to answer certain common real language questions automatically. For instance, Response Point will tell incoming callers the office hours, whether they ask "What are your hours?" or "What time are you open?" or numerous other variations of that and a couple other questions.

As for the other two areas of focus that Gates cited, Response Point falls short. The system uses only the G.711 codec, which delivers decent, but not high definition, call quality. Using Network Instruments' Observer 12, I found calls recorded consistent R-factor scores around 84.070 (translating to a 4.170 MOS score). And because G.711 uses more bandwidth that other common codecs, Response Point is not really viable as a VOIP solution for remote users with slower WAN connections, so it lacks the connectedness to which Gates referred.

Overall, the call applications that Response Point provides are pretty straightforward. The system supports Call Transfer, Conferencing, Park and Hold. The single auto attendant prompts incoming callers to find names in the system directory, or companies can defer the use of an auto attendant in favor of a receptionist. Voice mails can be obtained over the phone or e-mailed to the user as a WAV file.

Compared to many alternatives, Response Point offers a fairly basic set of VOIP PBX features. However, Response Point meets the needs of SMBs, features low and predictable prices, boasts a few glitzy next-generation features that make the system incredibly easy to use, and comes in an appliance form factor that makes the system a snap to deploy.

The Hardware

Microsoft hasn't delivered Response Point as software for customers to install on a Windows Server. Rather, they have created a software platform built atop Windows XP Embedded for hardware vendors to install and sell on their own equipment, so each vendor's iteration of Response Point will be a little different.

I tested Quanta Syspine's version of Response Point, the Syspine Digital Operator Phone System A-50. D-Link also offers a Response Point-based solution, called the DVX-2000MS, (which hopefully means the end of the line for D-Link's disappointing DVX-1000 that I reviewed in 2006). Aastra should also be selling a Response Point system sometime this year.

The base price of $2,500 buys one A-50 appliance and four Syspine phones. At $625 per user, the initial costs may seem high compared to small-business oriented solutions from Allworx or one of the purveyors of open source-based solutions. However, there are no additional per-user licensing fees, so the per-user cost will drop dramatically as customers approach the system capacity of 50 users. Simply buy a new phone (Syspine's costs $159) and plug it into network.

Microsoft is also offering financing terms so customers can spread the upfront cash outlay for the system over the course of three years.

The A-50 appliance supports up to eight analog trunks, as the appliance has two 4-port FXO (Foreign Exchange Office) banks, whereas D-Link requires a separate analog gateway appliance instead. The appliance also has one Gigabit Ethernet connection, three USB ports (for as of yet undefined future expansion) and an audio line out port. The appliance also features a detachable LCD faceplate that shows some status and network information.

The Syspine appliance is entirely solid state and fanless, so there are no moving parts-removing one of the primary concerns about other, PC-oriented small business PBX appliances.

The Syspine phones have 23 buttons, including preprogrammed keys for Hold, Voice mail, Speakerphone and the Response Point speech recognition capabilities. Each phone has two network connections-for the LAN and a PC-and the LAN port supports 802.3af Power over Ethernet.

The Software

Response Point is managed via a Windows application called Response Point Administrator. When a phone is connected to the network, the administrator must use this application to assign a user (and an extension) to the phone. Multiple users may be assigned to the same phone as well, though only the primary is listed on the phone screen.

The main Administrator screen shows the current status of all users, phones and trunks. There is also a more detailed event log, and system status screens for network settings, system uptime, CPU and memory utilization and storage usage (which is affected by stored contacts and voice mails).

Administrators can also specify when the auto-attendant gets bypassed, record personalized messages to answer the common questions the system can answer and define external phone numbers that can access the Response Point voice-activated services.

Meanwhile, Response Point Users interact with the system via a Windows application called Response Point Assistant. It is not a VOIP soft phone so users can't place or take VOIP calls using the PC. Rather, it is just a partnering control application for users to customize their experience.

Users can program call forwarding instructions (to another extension, voice mail or an offsite number), dictate how they receive voice mails and add contacts for Response Point voice dialing (it can suck contacts out of Outlook), among a few other behaviors.