Microsoft's Response Point is PBX software that runs on Embedded XP inside of hardware sold by three Microsoft partners -- Aastra, D-Link, and Quanta -- with more partners to come later in 2008, according to Microsoft. You can engage a VAR to install the system or do it yourself without much effort.
Response Point setup is remarkably straightforward, and so is day-to-day use. Thanks to an automated assistant that responds to voice commands, callers can do most anything with the push of a single button. The trade-off in keeping the system simple is a minimum of telephony features, and collaboration features such as presence awareness and instant messaging are absent.
Response Point requires Windows XP or Vista running on one PC; this functions as the management console. Additionally, each user may use an XP or Vista PC to take advantage of telephone functions and Outlook integration, but this isn't a must because call routing and other configuration tasks may be done by your administrator. Also good: You don't have to install separate servers, such as Exchange.
The Quanta Syspine DOS A50-8G base unit used for this review, like the Sutus Business Central unit, is a diminutive, attractive tabletop box that will fit into most any office décor. Installing a small system should take less than 30 minutes; just connect the base unit and phones to a network hub, and plug in your analog lines. The Syspine unit includes eight analog ports.
Next, using Response Point Administrator software, you configure the base unit, add users, and assign them to phones. But I was slowed by a similar problem I faced with Allworx: Administrator, 32-bit software, refused to run on my 64-bit Vista laptop. After finding a 32-bit XP system and loading the Administrator program, finalizing my setup proceeded quickly.
First, the phones on my network were automatically discovered. Next, I stepped through Administrator's menus to assign handsets to specific users, groups, or locations (such as a conference room). There's basic call routing for each user, such as forwarding to an outside line if the employee doesn't pick up the call after a preset number of rings -- but no options to have different greetings by time or day of the week.
Like other systems, Response Point has an auto-attendant and directory of users that I easily configured. For instance, I recorded custom greetings from a phone and designated an employee as the operator. Lastly, Response Point let me configure an outgoing SMTP e-mail server so that users would receive e-mail notification and an attached audio file of voice messages.
Surprisingly, there's only minimal integration with Microsoft Outlook -- and this requires each user to install Response Point Assistant (another 32-bit-only utility). Assistant correlates a caller ID with your Outlook contacts list and pops up their information. It also allows users to change voice mail, notifications, and call forwarding settings.
Besides voice mail, Response Point telephony features include call park/retrieval, three-way conferencing, and ringing all phones in a group. However, Response Point doesn't support softphones.
During testing, Response Point performed without any issue. Up to eight concurrent calls were processed by the auto-attendant. The Syspine IP 310 phones provide a nice balance of usability and functions -- with informative messages on the LCD, clear voice quality, and dedicated buttons for essential functions.
Response Point software lets users perform typical tasks from a phone, such as recording personal greetings. Moreover, the system stores about 100 hours of voice mail on the internal 500GB hard disk -- messages that are accessed from a simple playback menu. I also appreciated the ability to bypass the auto-attendant when calling from an outside phone number to retrieve my voice mail.
If Response Point's minimalist feature set might leave some unsatisfied, the built-in speech recognition will surely be a hit with others. Using technology from Microsoft Speech Server, Response Point is turned into a highly accurate voice recognition engine -- without any additional setup or training.
To evaluate this feature, I simply pressed the blue button on the handset (which is part of the hardware specifications) and said something like "Dial Bob." Every time I tried this with different names, the system dialled correctly. I liked the way you can park a call, go to another phone, and then retrieve it by saying, "Retrieve call," or "Retrieve call two." Call transfer works the same way, by simply speaking, "Transfer my call to Bob."
Further, administrators can configure responses to three specific questions callers might ask, such as: "What is your location?"
Beyond cool, voice recognition comes of age with Response Point. That said, Microsoft's solution will be most at home in small businesses already invested in Windows PCs and that need only a basic phone system. Specific to the Quanta hardware, you may need to purchase the optional Security Gateway for firewall protection, VPN, DHCP server, and QoS bandwidth management.
There's talk of integrating Response Point with Microsoft Small Business Server. Microsoft wouldn't discuss this, but I think it makes tremendous sense. After all, many potential Response Point customers are already running Microsoft servers, and this could bring collaboration capabilities to Response Point.
Microsoft has said that it will release Service Pack 1 for Response Point this summer. The free update will let you use Response Point to make outbound calls through an Internet telephony service provider, and will support Direct Inward Dialling to automatically route inbound callers to a specific extension.