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March 19, 2007

Microsoft pushing phone system for small biz

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano at 9:08 AM

Microsoft is putting the full-court sales press on small businesses this week, online and in person, as part of its Small Business Summit. The company plans to tout the virtues of several products it says are designed specifically for small businesses.

Today, during a speech by Microsoft Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner, the company is trotting out a new product aimed at small business phone systems. (Chairman Bill Gates is scheduled to make a video appearance announcing the product, for which he has been a patron of sorts.)

Response Point is a package of software and hardware designed to replace a PBX telephone system for businesses with 50 or fewer employees.

Jeff Smith, a senior product manager, said Microsoft built the system to be easy to set up, manage and grow to accommodate additional employees.

The system consists of a box that sits in a company's phone closet, and phones designed by three Microsoft hardware partners, Uniden, D-Link and Quanta Computer. Smith said the phones will have only one function button and will rely on speech recognition to execute commands such as speed dialing and transferring calls.

Smith said there's a large untapped market for small-business phone systems. Only one third of small businesses have a phone system; most use consumer phones and transfer calls by handing the receiver from one employee to another.

Beta testers, including several Seattle-area small businesses, have been using Response Point for the last eight months, but work on the project and the speech-recognition technology behind it goes back several years.

Smith said Response Point will be released this calendar year. He did not disclose a price.

At least as interesting as the new product is the way in which it was developed.

Smith said his team tried to operate as a small business within Microsoft, under the Microsoft Research organization, which has devoted lots of ongoing effort to speech recognition. The team keeps its own cost center and received "funding rounds" with approval of the project and the funding from Gates himself, Smith said.

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