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Microsoft's Cordless Phone Has Added Features--and Some Hang-Ups

October 26, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Software companies, TV news networks, Internet service providers and publishing houses aren't the only ones that need to worry about competition from Microsoft. Sony, AT&T, Panasonic, Uniden and other cordless phone makers also will soon find themselves competing with Bill Gates.

Later this week, Microsoft plans to roll out the Microsoft Cordless Phone, a $199 device that turns a PC into an intelligent answering machine and phone dialer.

The product consists of a 900-megahertz cordless phone, a recharging cradle, a separate transmitter unit that's connected to the phone line and the PC and Microsoft Call Manager software. The recharging cradle can be near any electrical outlet in the house and doesn't need to be plugged into either a phone line or the PC.

The phone comes with voicemail software that includes separate mailboxes for family members. If you subscribe to caller ID, you can have the software play a customized greeting depending on who is calling. Or it can selectively block or put through a call depending on who it's from.

There is nothing unusual about being able to use a PC as a digital answering machine. Many home PCs come with software that allows you to use a modem to answer your phone and take messages in multiple mailboxes.

Personally, I've never had much use for them--and based on interviews with several PC makers, neither do most other PC users.

Most people would rather rely on their good, old answering machine or a modestly priced digital voicemail system rather than turning their $1,000 to $2,500 PC into a $69 answering machine.

Microsoft hopes that the extra features in this hardware/software combination will overcome consumer resistance to PC-based phone systems.

The device does have some significant advantages over a modem-based PC answering system. Although the PC and the Call Manager software have to be running for the voicemail feature to work, you don't have to be sitting at your PC to retrieve your messages. You can press the message button on the phone and listen to messages through the phone itself or via an attached speaker. You can also retrieve messages from a remote touch-tone phone.

In addition to leaving a message, a caller can also send you a numeric page. You create the page option as one of your mailboxes, and when a caller enters a numeric page, your PC calls your pager and passes on the message. The software can also be configured to automatically call your cellular phone or other remote phone to play your messages. However unlike some systems and services, it can't forward calls or let you monitor incoming messages from your cellular phone.

All incoming and outgoing calls are logged in a call history file that tells you the name and phone number (if known) of the caller or recipient along with the call time and duration. It only knows callers' names and phone numbers if you subscribe to caller ID and if they're not blocked.

The phone uses the same Microsoft address book that is used by the Outlook Express program that is bundled with Windows 98 and Internet Explorer 4.0. And if you click on a listing, it will place the call for you.

My favorite feature is its ability to place calls with voice commands. In addition to the standard phone book, there is a speed-dial section that allows you to enter up to 40 names and phone numbers you can call simply by speaking the name. The software has a voice-recognition feature, which allows it to look up a phone number from anyone in your speed-dial list. Unfortunately, you have to enter each name and number in a separate part of the program. For some reason, the speed-calling feature is not integrated into the phone book.

Although speech recognition is far from an exact science, I was very impressed at its accuracy. To place a call, you press the voice command button on the side of the phone, say "call Larry" and the phone verbally confirms who it is calling and places the call for you.

The phone does have some limitations.

For one thing, it's only a one-line phone. It seems to me that most people with a Pentium PC (required) and $200 to spend on a cordless phone probably have more than one phone line in their home. Another issue is that it takes up a serial port, which could interfere with your Internet access if you have an external modem and only one serial port. Another limitation is that you can't take advantage of the phone's calling features from other extensions in the house and you can have only one Microsoft phone per PC.

The phone also requires that the PC be left on to retrieve messages (although you can place and receive calls if the PC is off).

I don't mind leaving the PC on all day or even overnight, but I'm not sure I'd want to leave it running if I were away on a three-week vacation.

And given the instability of Windows and PCs in general, I'd worry that a software or operating-system glitch, power outage or other catastrophe would disable the answering system until I got back.

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