Executive Summary:

When it comes to business phone systems, Microsoft Response Point offers a pretty darn good phone system for small businesses with 50 employees or less. A typical Response Point solution includes an XPe base station and several phones. The base station resembles a large network router, and it connects to both the business's external phone line and the internal wired network. There are no moving parts: The storage in the base station is all solid state and will work silently in a closet or other area for years. The only software installation required is for the management software. Response Point comes with no hidden fees. Once you purchase the hardware, it's yours to use for as long as you'd like with no additional costs.

Most small businesses don’t have the resources or time to deal with traditional PBX phone systems, and even centrally managed solutions like Centrex can be expensive and complex. On the flip side, modern software-based solutions like Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 (OCS) are hugely expensive and complex, and OCS requires onsite technical staff.

You might expect Microsoft to simply retool its OCS product line and offer a “lite” version, perhaps integrated into a specific Small Business Server (SBS) SKU, which would provide small companies with IP-based phone capabilities. But such a thing would still be needlessly complex. What small businesses really want is a phone system that looks, acts, and works exactly like a phone. That’s where Response Point comes in.

What’s the Big Deal with Response Point?
Using a blend of old and new technologies—traditional looking, user-friendly phone handsets that utilize Windows XP Embedded (XPe) technology—Response Point is essentially a small business phone system in a box. OK, it’s a big box: Response Point comes from one of several Microsoft hardware partners and is typically sold in a starter kit that combines a base station with five phones. You can add more phones at any time, and, now with the release of Response Point SP1, get seamless VoIP integration.

Response Point is designed for businesses with 50 or fewer employees, and unlike software-based solutions, if you ever do outgrow the system, you’re going to have to move on. That said, the Response Point experience is as familiar as any phone system found at larger businesses, and unlike those systems, it’s simple to configure. There’s no management per se: You’ll only need to occasionally change extensions, add and remove phones, and so on as the needs of your office change.

What’s Really Happening Here?
A typical Response Point solution includes an XPe base station and several phones. The base station resembles a large network router, and it connects to both the business’s external phone line and the internal wired network. There are no moving parts: The storage in the base station is all solid state and will work silently in a closet or other area for years. The only software installation required is for the management software: This will need to be installed on at least one PC in the office so that you can configure the phone systems and each phone. Installing individual phones requires only that you connect them to an Ethernet jack. Aside from the different wire, the phones are otherwise identical to standard office phones. Various types are available, from simple handsets to more full-featured designed with more capabilities.

An office manager or worker should be able to get the new phone system up and running in literally minutes: I was able to configure a review unit in about 15 minutes. If your office is truly incapable of figuring this out, various Microsoft partners sell and configure Response Point for a small charge. Unlike some subscription-based services, however, it’s unlikely you’ll need anyone to monitor the system regularly.

When you plug a phone into the office network, it shows up in the administrative console. From there, you can tie the phone to a specific employee (“Mary”), or, intuitively, to a location in the office (“receptionist,” “meeting room”). This has several advantages: If you rotate through part-time help regularly, it might not make sense for particular phones to be tied to particular employees. You can also create groups (“Sales”) so that specific calls can be routed appropriately to more than one phone. No matter how you provision the phones, it’s simple to change their configuration at any time through the console.

One of Response Point’s best features, and the one that’s transformed my home office into a multinational corporation as far as anyone who calls is concerned, is a speech-based automated receptionist. Callers can navigate through the phone system using a pleasant and surprisingly useful voice-recognition feature that routes calls accordingly. Naturally, it also supports voice mail (with up to 1000 minutes of messages per base station) and call routing and forwarding. So if your best salesperson is out on a call, important calls can be forwarded to him or her—or not: The system is very flexible.

Pricing is also in line with the budget of a typical SMB. Microsoft partners including Quanta, D-Link, and Aastra Technologies are now selling starter packages (one base station and four to five phones) for about $2500. Additional wired phones cost about $160 each, and Microsoft tells me that wireless versions will arrive sometime this year. Response Point comes with no hidden fees. Once you purchase the hardware, it’s yours to use for as long as you’d like with no additional costs. Take that, OCS.

Recommendations
Response Point is a wonderful and capable system for small businesses that don’t have a dedicated tech staff and aren’t likely to keep a Microsoft partner on retainer to manage a more complex system. However, you won’t be able to grow with Response Point past the 50-user mark, at which point it might be time to consider more complex systems and the resulting support requirements. But I’m surprised and heartened to see that Microsoft can make such a solution: Response Point doesn’t require Windows Server, Active Directory, Microsoft Exchange, or any of the software giant’s other hugely successful but complex enterprise products. It is, in other words, perfect for the typical small business.