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» Microsoft Response Point: VoIP For SMBs
Microsoft Response Point: VoIP For SMBs
Coming up with a list of SMB VoIP vendors is easy, but it can get long and not even include half of the possibilities.
And late last year, Microsoft (NSDQ:MSFT) joined crowd with Response Point, a turnkey, small-office, voice-response phone system.
Response Point is a software IP PBX running on Embedded XP, which comes installed and preconfigured on hardware supplied by Microsoft's OEM partners. Response Point-based systems are currently available from D-Link Systems, Fountain Valley, Calif., and Quanta, Tao Yuan, Taiwan. Aastra Technologies, Ontario, will begin selling them later this year. To get a feel for how the Microsoft VoIP solution works, the Test Center deployed a Syspine Digital Operator System A50 from Quanta. The Syspine system consisted of a base unit with built-in FXO trunk ports for connecting up to eight analog lines and four phones. This particular configuration is priced at $2,490. Additional phones are $149.
Developed entirely in-house by a group that acted like an independent startup within Microsoft, Response Point surprisingly works independently of other Microsoft products. Other than requiring Windows XP or Vista on the management PC, that is. Response Point is very different from Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 in this respect.
Specifically designed for SMBs, Response Point does not have the prerequisites that OCS requires, such as Active Directory, Exchange Server 2007 and a DNS server. All these requirements can be a bit burdensome for SMBs--not just in complexity, but also in license fees. Also, OCS works with a separate PBX, while Response Point is a full-fledged IP PBX system.
While solution providers can offer an end-to-end Microsoft-centric solution with other Microsoft platforms bundled in, it's not necessary. There is an upside to this: the opportunity to sell and work with non-Microsoft shops without requiring any major overhaul. SMBs that thought they were too small for VoIP can now have their very own system.
The white base unit, 12 x 3 x 10 inches, has no hard drive or moving parts, contributing to its reliability. Designed for the tabletop rather than the rack (appropriate for the SMB), the PBX runs Embedded XP stored entirely in solid-state flash memory. If something goes wrong with the PBX, solution providers can just swap in a replacement box and restore from the last system backup. The base unit also comes with a built-in DHCP server, handy for customers who don't already have one or want to deploy the phone system on a VLAN. The detachable LCD on the front displays status and network information.
The Syspine IP Phone 310 is a standard IP phone, except for the prominent, blue Response Point button at the top of the keypad. This button allows the use of the built-in voice-recognition capabilities to place both internal and external calls, check voice-mail or manipulate calls. The technology understands natural speech; users do not have to memorize a list of specific voice commands but can speak normally. The phones have preprogrammed keys for hold, voice-mail and speakerphone. The phone's LAN port supports 802.3af Power over Ethernet.
While hardware partners customize the Response Point software slightly to work on the phones, base unit and FXO adapters, each component is running essentially the same software. As a result, customers can mix and match across brands. There is no reason why solution providers can't offer D-Link phones to customers already with the Quanta Syspine base unit, or bundle the D-Link gateways with Syspine units.
Deployment was surprisingly simple, and the Test Center has seen plenty of quick VoIP installs. The base unit obtains an IP address automatically when connected to the network, or it can be assigned manually. On the management PC, the setup wizard detects the base unit and finishes configuration before prompting to connect the phones. Once powered, the handsets look for an IP address and the PBX to download the configuration. The wizard lists all detected phones by the MAC address and presents dialog boxes to create and assign extensions and users to each unit. Once the internal phone network is up and running, it can be connected to allow external calls by plugging the analog line into one of the ports in the base unit. The Syspine unit allows up to eight analog POTS lines.
The system sits right on top of a basic analog network, which means the SMB customer doesn't need to invest in a T1 line. The calls are all handled over the IP network internally, but when it comes to the outside world, the customer doesn't have to change anything. This is an attractive option for startups and businesses based out of a space without office-specific infrastructure.
Response Point can support up to 50 users, but its ideal size is around 10 users. Ten users will not stress a Gigabit network, even if those users are running voice, data and video applications. Call quality remained high on the test network with three phones, even while torrenting several video files and streaming audio files. Since external calls remain on the standard analog line, call quality remained the same on external calls. For a larger user base, however, Response Point supports standard QoS management tools. Solution providers can include QoS management as a service offering.
Response Point is flexible about what constitutes a user. Phones can be assigned to a user's name (human), a geographic location (lobby) or a user group (tech support). The system also can be configured so that up to four phones will ring for a particular extension.
There are three software pieces: the call processing software on the base unit, Response Point Administrator management console to monitor system health and make changes, and Response Point Assistant software on Windows PCs for on-screen call notification.
The voice-recognition technology works very well. There's no need to remember special key commands to transfer calls. The auto receptionist feature also makes a company look bigger than it is and can handle a variety of queries from callers.
There is one glaring omission, however: lack of T1 support. Larger businesses with an existing T1 line can't use the solution, and businesses requiring at least eight to 12 lines will find it cheaper to move to a T1 line than to stick with analog. In its current incarnation, the software is not conducive to growth. Microsoft will be rolling out the first Service Pack in the June time frame, which may include some missing features, such as SIP trunking. Microsoft has said OEM partners can develop their own T1 support, and solution providers can use the mix-and-match capability to roll out the feature to customers.
While the initial costs may seem a little pricey in dollar amounts, it's quite affordable, especially considering there are no other license fees. Expansion means simply buying a new phone orgateway (NYSE: GTW).
The D-Link VoiceCenter and Quanta's Syspine DOS A-50 also will be sold through distribution partners such as D&H Distributing Inc., Ingram Micro (NYSE:IM) Inc., Ma Labs Inc., Synnex (NYSE:SNX) Corp. and Tech Data (NSDQ:TECD) Corp. Both the Syspine and VoiceCenter systems are priced below $3,000.
While specific partner program details differ between Quanta and D-Link, Response Point partners are listed in Microsoft's How-To-Buy directory and are eligible for targeted search referrals. Response Point partners receive no-cost or matched funding for local small- business customer events. Solution providers can expect to earn margins on hardware, charge for installation and offer maintenance contracts where the system will be managed remotely. Considering the almost no overhead required, this is an attractive SMB solution.