Microsoft Dials in to the Telephone Market

, November 4, 1998 — What is Microsoft doing , getting into the phone business? Like the Microsoft Cordless Phone System itself, the question can be answered more than one way.

The most dramatic is to take a look at the Burns family – a test household for Microsoft’s new PC-enhanced 900 MHz cordless phone. The Burnses are a typical ’90s clan. Both parents, Shannon and Charlie, work full-time as consultants, and even when extended assignments pull them away from the home office, they often receive business calls at home. Their four kids – Sean, 8; Brett, 12; Trevor; 13, and Jamie, 15 – are enrolled at three different schools and each plays multiple sports year-round. Throw in memberships in a variety of social organizations, professional societies and clubs, and you get the picture: jammed family calendar, high-mileage Jeep Cherokee, and a constantly ringing phone.

This chaos became a bit more manageable after 8-year-old Windows whiz Sean installed the Microsoft Cordless Phone System in the kitchen and installed its cordless-communications module and Call Manager software upstairs on the family’s PC. Family members quickly set up individual voicemail boxes and recorded custom outgoing greetings. Shannon and Charlie created a joint mailbox for family calls, with a cheerful greeting from Sean, but added separate mailboxes with more buttoned-down messages for business use.

To further streamline professional calls, Shannon and Charlie fed Call Manager their clients’ phone numbers and, using the Caller ID service from their telephone company, tagged them as high priority. That way, during dinner – the oasis of calm in each hectic day – the phone’s Do Not Disturb feature allows only urgent business calls to ring through. Lower-priority calls are routed straight to voicemail, unless they’re from one of the telemarketing firms the family has blocked altogether.

The Cordless Phone System isn’t all business, however. The Burns kids took advantage of call recognition too, just for fun: When Sean’s soccer coach phones, the Cordless Phone System uses its call-announce feature to play a pre-recorded declaration: “Coach Johnson is calling.” The kids also programmed the phone’s Voice Command capabilities to recognize their friends’ names. When Trevor tells the phone to “Call Reid,” it does.

“Although I have a slight accent, the phone still recognizes my command,” he said. “It’s so great.”

Sean is equally enthusiastic about the Voice Command feature. “I don’t have to remember so many phone numbers anymore!” he said. One of Shannon’s favorite phone features is its call log, which tracks the time and duration of every call. She and Charlie use the log to keep track of business calls, but it also comes in handy for other purposes: it’s a dead giveaway to furtive phone use during homework time.

The kids aren’t so crazy about that feature, but they love the phone’s ability to transfer calls to their parents’ voicemail boxes. They spend less time jotting down messages that way, and Shannon and Charlie spend less time tracking down stray notes.

“I can rely on this new phone to catch important calls much more than a message written by one of the kids on a note,” said Charlie. The kids appreciate the privacy of personal mailboxes as well. Sibling teasing about overheard messages was known to happen before the new phone arrived.

“My friends can have fun leaving me a message because they know I have my own mailbox. They know I’m the only one who will hear the message,” Trevor said.

The More Prosaic Answer

Another way of answering the question about why Microsoft has introduced a phone requires turning back the clock a couple of years. Phone companies’ Caller ID services had just begun to take off, and Microsoft engineers were pondering ways PC users could make better use of that information to control and manage calls. Meanwhile, a number of manufacturers had begun including answering-machine software – with multiple mailboxes and custom outgoing greetings – on modem-equipped home PCs.

Microsoft itself briefly produced its own answering machine software, which was sold only with PCs. A fusion of telephony software with Caller ID data offered intriguing possibilities, and Microsoft began gauging interest through its user-testing program.

Microsoft learned that, while many owners took the time to set up their PC answering machines, they soon abandoned them for a very simple reason. Checking and retrieving messages required them to go to their PCs, which were almost never in a spot convenient to place an answering machine. (The kitchen, where the Burns family put its Microsoft Cordless Phone System, was the answering-machine spot most users preferred.) Consumers told Microsoft they were open to having PC-enabled call-handling enhancements, but they didn’t want to give up the put-it-anywhere convenience of traditional phones or answering machines.

Microsoft’s engineers concluded that their call-handling software should work with a cordless phone that could communicate with the PC from any location in the house. Engineers experimented with a variety of approaches that would have linked the PC to off-the-shelf cordless phones, but all proved too inflexible or cumbersome. To achieve the mix of Voice Command, Caller ID enhancements, custom messaging and convenience they wanted – Microsoft concluded it must build its own phone.

The result: after extensive research into product design and features, the Microsoft Cordless Phone System is first and foremost a great cordless phone, but one that takes advantage of the PC’s processing power to provide enhancements such as Voice Command, Call Announce, custom greetings and call-logging.

To go back to the original reasons for developing the phone, it’s a real help to busy families. Just ask Shannon Burns:

“With four kids, two businesses and a phone that never stops ringing, we never thought managing our phone calls could be so easy and affordable,” she said.

Related Posts