Microsoft unveils small-business phone system

Microsoft shows off speech recognition-enabled phone for SMBs

Microsoft has unwrapped a speech recognition-enabled phone system that is designed to give small businesses a flexible alternative to a public branch exchange (PBX).

Microsoft took the wraps off the product, the Microsoft Response Point phone system, at its second-annual Small Business Summit, which is being held both online and in Redmond, Washington. The company expects about 30,000 small businesses and partners in all to participate.

The Microsoft Response Point phone system includes both software and phones, and was designed to be easy to install and manage, a senior product manager at Microsoft, Jeff Smith, said. Three phones, the D-Link DVX-2000, Quanta Syspine and Uniden Evolo will be able to use the system. A PC-based management console Also included in the Response Point system so anybody familiar with a PC environment can make changes or manage the system.

Phone calls on the system are designed to be easy to make by pressing the Response Point button on the phone and telling the system who you want to call. For example, a user could say 'Call Jeff at work' and the system would dial that number based on the contact information entered into the Response Point directory, Smith said.

Response Point can be set up either as a VoIP system or one that used traditional phone lines, he said.

One small business, home entertainment systems company, Comenity, has tested Response Point and found it helped the company seem more professional. It also eased the process of setting up new workers in the office.

"We're constantly adding employees and moving things around the office," CEO of Comenity, Mark McCracken, said while speaking on a recorded video shown at the Small Business Summit. With Response Point, a phone could be moved around the office and it immediately worked the same from a new location, he said.

Using the auto attendant meant that customers could make calls after hours and still get through to the employee they're looking for, he said.

Other features he likes include the pop-up box with caller ID information that appears in the corner of his computer screen when calls come in and the ability to allow expected phone calls to bypass the operator and reach him directly.

The team that built the Response Point system acted as an independently funded startup within Microsoft, which gave it the advantage of developing the product from the ground up for small businesses without having to work with other product teams, Smith said.

The team also operated like a small startup company, allowing it to understand the needs of small businesses, Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, said, speaking on the video at the summit. "What they found is that what small businesses need is the ability to simplify the steps it takes to accomplish every day tasks," he said. One example of how Response Point addressed that was the speech recognition feature, he said.

According to Smith, only about one-third of small businesses use PBXs or phone systems because they are expensive and difficult to install and manage. "You need a lot of technical expertise," he said.

Microsoft saw an opportunity to make phone systems as accessible to small businesses as PCs are, Smith said.

The Microsoft Response Point system will be available this year. Microsoft is not yet disclosing the pricing, but Smith said it would be competitive.

He said typical small-business PBXs cost from about $US5000 to more than $10,000.

(Nancy Gohring in Seattle contributed to this story.)

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Elizabeth Montalbano

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