Ordinarily, a service-pack update isn't big news. The release usually indicates that the software publisher is fixing some past mistakes, tweaking a few features and sweeping away some unnecessary code.
This is not the case, however, with the upcoming Microsoft Response Point SP1 (Service Pack 1). The free software update, due this summer, will give current and future users an array of powerful new VoIP capabilities. For current Response Point customers, as well as for companies that are considering adopting the technology, the move offers a compelling new reason to pick or stick with Microsoft's phone-system technology.
As it currently stands, Response Point is designed to give small businesses a sophisticated, voice-driven phone system. Administration software lets users move, add or change phones with only a few mouse clicks. Response Point supports both IP and analog telephone lines, comes with built-in voice mail, and aims to offer small businesses all of the phone capabilities that they need in a single, easy-to-install package. No special phone training or networking expertise is required, Microsoft claims.
Response Point SP1 will include a variety of new features. The most prominent of these is the ability to complement traditional phone service with VoIP. The goal, according to Microsoft, is to enable small businesses to scale their telephony operations faster and more cost-effectively than would be possible if they used traditional PSTN (public switched telephone network) lines. A new VoIP setup wizard is designed to enable a customer to connect to a VoIP service provider to acquire additional phone numbers within a matter or minutes instead of days or weeks.
Another new VoIP-oriented feature will allow small businesses to take advantage of DID (Direct Inward Dialing), a service that enables users to selectively forward incoming calls to a particular phone extension or group of extensions. Response Point SP1 will also give businesses the ability to maintain a local VoIP number, allowing them to blend in with neighborhood business and yellow-pages directories. Phone-system hardware vendors — including Aastra Technologies Ltd., D-Link Corp. and Quanta Computer Inc. — are expected to preload SP1 onto their Response Point-based phone systems as soon as the software becomes available.
It would be silly to pretend that Microsoft is aiming for anything less than a big chunk of the small-business telephony market, and the company perhaps even hopes to dominate the sector. Over the past several years, Microsoft has watched as upstarts such as Fonality , Digium Inc . and Pingtel Corp . steadily built inroads into the small-business VoIP market with open-source IP PBX solutions. Microsoft now wants a piece — preferably a big piece — of this action with its proprietary offering.
Beyond open-source solutions, Microsoft's new course will also pit it against major IP PBX vendors — like Cisco Systems Inc . and Nortel Networks — that offer small businesses both traditional and IP-based voice phone systems. Microsoft hopes to use its growing clout in unified-communications technology to challenge these vendors on their own turf.
Over the next few years, expect Microsoft to partner with and invest in companies that can deliver a broad range of IP-focused, small-business communication services as it moves to establish itself as a big-league telecommunications player. Microsoft may be giving away SP1 and its powerful VoIP capabilities to existing Response Point customers, but it's certainly not emptying out the store.
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