Most everyone in the IT industry has heard of Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005/Office Communications Server 2007 (LCS/OCS), the previous/just-released versions of its instant messaging, audio/video conferencing, and "presence" product for the enterprise, which now supports VoIP using the standard SIP protocols.
But Microsoft designed LCS/OCS for large companies with large budgets. It's dependent on interoperability within a complex network infrastructure that includes Active Directory and Exchange. And it's not an IP PBX — it works in conjunction with one.
What about the SMB market? What about small to midsize businesses that want VoIP with UC features such as speech recognition and voice mail-to-e-mail but don't need all the sophisticated and high-priced functionality of LCS/OCS?
While not as well-known, if known at all, Microsoft Response Point may just fill the bill. When I mentioned it to some folks well-versed in Microsoft technology, several had never heard of it. That's not really surprising because it's a bit of a niche product. It runs on top of Windows XP, embedded as an appliance that uses solid state memory (no hard disk).
Microsoft designed it for companies with 50 or fewer users that want a turn-key solution for phone communications. However, this is a rapidly growing niche. Here's a look at what Response Point is and what it has to offer.
IP PBX in a box
Response Point appliances are available from several different vendors, including D-Link, Aastra, and Quanta Computer. The appliance provides IP PBX functionality and serves as a VoIP gateway to which you can connect multiple analog lines (the number depends on the vendor/model) as well as your IP phones.
The Response Point appliance plugs into your IP network, and you install administrative tools on a Windows PC for managing the system. The administrative computer can run Windows Server 2003 R2 SP2, Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 R2, Windows XP (either Professional or Home), or Windows Vista. Designed specifically for easy deployment and management, Response Point's wizards help you set everything up; when you plug in your phones, the base unit detects them.
You can assign a user to more than one phone, or you can assign a phone to more than one user, with each user getting an extension number for identification. (Users don't have to be individual people; they can also be a role or group.)
Response Point includes an auto-attendant feature, which means an automated receptionist (with configurable properties) can answer calls. Users can record the automated receptionist greetings and messages in their own voice and use customized messages. You can even enable the automated attendant to answer common questions such as "what are your hours?" or "what is your location?"
Another option is to have a real person answer and route calls. Users can also specify particular callers (i.e., phone numbers) that will bypass the auto-attendant or live receptionist and ring through directly to their desks. Speech recognition support means callers can say the names of the users to whom they want to speak, and the system will route their calls.
Another popular feature is voice mail to e-mail. You just set up your mail server (SMTP) information to forward voice mail messages as attachments to users' e-mail accounts. And you don't have to have Exchange Server to use this feature.
In addition, you can place and transfer internal calls using the speech recognition feature. You just press a hardware button on the IP phone and say "call" or "transfer to" and the name of the internal user to whom you want to contact. You can also use speech recognition to place calls to external recipients who are in your Contacts list.
In keeping with the popular "find me, follow me" trend in unified communications systems, Response Point allows users to forward their office lines to external lines, such as their home phones or cell phones, so they can remain available when they're out of the office. Users can also import contacts from Microsoft Outlook, the XP Windows Address Book, or Vista Contacts applications.
An important consideration for small businesses is the prospect of future growth. Response Point appliances typically come configured to support as few as four users, but companies can expand them to support up to 50, providing for a good range of growth without outgrowing the system.
What does it cost?
The cost of an IP PBX system can range from very low (using free open source software such as Asterisk on low-cost hardware) to tens of thousands of dollars. The Quanta, D-Link, and Aastra systems based on Response Point, including the base unit and four or five phones, cost around $2,500 (U.S.). With 20 phones, the cost is around $5,000 (depending on the hardware vendor).
Of course, a complex system often has hidden costs. Personnel costs are often the largest part of a small business' budget. Because non-IT personnel can manage Response Point, small businesses can save the cost of having such personnel on site.
Another hidden cost that Response Point greatly reduces or eliminates is that of user training and the learning curve. Because it's voice-activated and intuitive to use, most users will be able to start using it effectively with minimal training.
Small businesses in many industries are absolutely dependent on their phone systems to follow sales leads, answer customer questions, communicate with vendors, deal with partners, and stay in touch with off-site employees. Small businesses need many of the same high-tech telecommunications features that enterprise users take for granted — but in a smaller package that's easier to deploy and manage, and that costs less. In addition, small businesses that may be competing with larger companies find it useful to have a phone system that not only effectively handles their calling needs but also projects a more professional and "larger" presence to callers.
Microsoft addresses those needs with its Response Point solution that gives small businesses a whole slew of "big business" phone features at an affordable price. For more information, see Microsoft's Response Point Web site.
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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.