Although I laud Microsoft for the work it's doing with its unified communications (UC) products, I've always had a slightly unsettled feeling about the complexity and cost of these solutions. Sure, a typical enterprise will have the resources and need for this kind of thing, but what about small businesses?

That refrain is a common one these days, given the size of and opportunities inherent in the small business market. So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised last month when Microsoft showed up at my door with a small business phone system in a box--well, in several boxes--called Response Point. This solution looks to revolutionize the way small businesses handle communications, and it does so using an intriguing blend of the old and the new: traditional looking and user-friendly phone handsets that use VoIP and Windows XP Embedded technologies under the covers.

Excuse the ebullient praise here, but Response Point is awesome. Across the board, from cost, setup, management, and usage, Response Point is a solution that all small businesses should examine immediately. It's so good, in fact, that one of the Response Team's biggest customers internally is a set of Microsoft executives of a certain pay grade: They're all racing to get Response Point solutions set up, in of all places, their homes. That's completely understandable: My wife and I both work at home in separate offices, and with Response Point we can appear to be running a huge and successful business. It's hard to resist.

Here's how it works. Designed for small businesses with 50 or fewer employees, Response Point consists of an XP Embedded base station--which looks sort of like a large network router--that connects to both your external phone line and your internal wired network. Power on the unit, which features no moving parts, and you're up and running. (In fact, you can just toss it in a closet and forget about it, assuming there's a network connection and power in there.) You'll need to install the management software on at least one PC and then connect Ethernet-based VoIP handsets on users' desks.

That Response Point setup is easier than the typical PBX setup is an understatement. That it's also vastly superior out of the box is almost immediately obvious. Using the bundled administrative console software, an office manager (no IT staff required) can get the new office phone system up and running in minutes. As for the phones themselves, they use Microsoft's Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) protocol along with some new network discovery technologies to make them easy to use. You just plug them in and they show up in the administrative console.

Response Point's big claim to fame is simplicity. You use the console to create users that map to actual people or to locations in the office like receptionist, kitchen, or meeting room. You can also create groups (e.g., sales) so that calls can be routed appropriately to more than one person or phone. Provisioning of phones is incredibly easy, and as people come and go, you can simply reprovision phones accordingly.

Response Point includes all the bells and whistles you'd expect, such as voice mail with enough storage for 1000 minutes of messages. But it also adds an incredible amount of high-end functionality that should blow away anyone running a small business. You can set up automatic forwarding to cell phones and other numbers, auto forward to others in the office under certain conditions, and use an incredible voice recognition system that's accessible both from within the local system (i.e., at the office) and when calling in from the road. That way, any phone number that's in your corporate directory is available to you at all times, even when you're not at the office. The automated receptionist is also quite impressive, providing a professional front-end to your business and ensuring that the phone is always answered, no matter what the time is.

The final cherry on top of all this is the cost. A starter package, consisting of a base station and 4-5 phones, runs about $2500 to $3000, depending on the hardware maker. (Response Point solutions are available from a variety of manufacturers, including Quanta, D-Link, and Aastra; I've been using the Quanta version.) Additional wired phones are about $160 each, and wireless versions are expected in 2008. There are no additional fees to worry about: Once you purchase the hardware, it's yours to use in perpetuity, with no per-user fees, yearly mailbox charges, or whatever. It's a one-time charge.

If you're one of the tens of thousands of small business resellers wondering how Response Point affects you, consider this: Although Response Point won't typically require any ongoing management service, this product is an obvious sell for thousands of businesses you're already servicing, and of course growing businesses will need to add additional phones as they go. If they get large enough, of course, you can move them on to Microsoft's more costly and service-ready enterprise solutions.

I'm excited about Response Point and have a lot more to say, but I'm out of space. I'll have a more complete review of Response Point available on the SuperSite for Windows within a week. http://www.winsupersite.com