Microsoft gets into VoIP ... and confuses us

After much investigation, we get to the bottom of Microsoft's Response Point

Impenetrable questions I've been pondering: The difference between acute dyslexia and the way Linux programmers name their software. How Apple Store sales personnel differ from those at the Clearasil human testing lab. Whether the proliferation of Law & Order: X and Ebola virus outbreaks are somehow connected. The difference between Office Communications Server and Microsoft Response Point.

When Microsoft briefed me on Office Communications Server just a little while back (and I dutifully attempted to unravel that mystery here), I flat out asked the question: "Is Microsoft getting into VoIP with OCS?" and the answer was [paraphrased for lyrical aesthetics] 'No. OCS is evolving into a multiplatformed internal communications hub with VoIP hooks." Then a couple of weeks go by, and Redmond drops Response Point at their second annual Small Business Summit.

So naturally my vision has a slightly reddish haze around the outline, though my inquiries stay polite: "What the @#$% is Response Point? Is it a subset or an add-on to OCS? Is it for small businesses only? Since you guys screwed me over, might I and a date borrow either Paul Allen's yacht or Bill Gates' trampoline room for the weekend?" The short answers were: "A small business phone system, and easy on the language, we're sensitive and pale up here near Canada. No. No. And in response to the last, a couple of big guys in trenchcoats and sunglasses who slapped me around when I opened the door.

Today I had a chat with Jeff Smith, a senior product exec on the Response Point team. Smith's longer answers stated that Response Point is entirely its own product, not related either by marketing or technology to OCS ... yet. It's a full-featured VoIP PBX for which Microsoft produces the software and that various hardware partners offer as an appliance with a variety of compatible handsets for your conversational pleasures. Those hardware partners are D-Link, Quanta Computer, and Uniden.

Because Response Point is only in beta at this time, the Redmonderoonies aren't offering much in the way of detail. However, Smith confirmed that it is a SIP-based PBX, but one that requires specific hardware features, right down to the handset. That means you can't even plug a standard SIP handset into a Response Point PBX and get a dial tone.

Considering the number of low-cost and completely open SIP PBXes there are out there, you have to wonder if that's a smart move. Smith responded by having me watch the video of Response Point's original demo. The idea isn't just that Response Point is for small business, it's that Response Point will be so easy as to put even the Geek Squad out of business. Unfortunately, the video file is also short on actual product details, so I had to keep asking questions.

What Microsoft claims to have done is made advanced phone features moron-proof via a combination of dedicated hardware buttons (like a voicemail button on the phone) and voice-activated commands ("voicemail user OliverR"). That includes things like call transfer, call forwarding, three-way calling, etc. Everything that frightens today's small business technophobes about their phones. Response Point will also integrate enough with Outlook that the phone can access your Outlook contact database to make calls and have the Response Point PBX send your voicemail to your inbox as a .WMV attachment.

I get the attraction on ease of use. And I like Response Point's ability to use either an Internet-based provider (Vonage Business) or straight PSTN or any combination out the back. I also like the licensing plan: Pay once for the software on the PBX appliance, and you can add as many hardware handsets as you want -- no further software licenses required.

But the rest of these features already exist in the small business SIP VoIP space. Plus, despite the obvious play, Smith said that Response Point wasn't going to integrate with Small Business Server 2007 when/if that platform shows up post-Longhorn -- even though the Exchange 2007 folks are making a big deal about Exchange's capability to act as voicemail and call aggregator. Apparently, that's a Response Point 2.0 goal.

Still, I suppose Microsoft's marketing might combined with a better demo video of Response Point's easy-to-use calling features should be enough to gain Response Point a decent initial reception and grab sufficient market share. But all that cool Exchange and Office Communication/SharePoint integration? We're not seeing that until the next major rev.

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