It makes you wonder what Microsoft would have done if the results weren't so favorable. A study the software giant commissioned showed that its desktop VoIP products provide better voice quality than industry standard IP desk phones. Because a reputable independent testing firm named Psytechnics did the study, the results are not in doubt. They do raise an interesting question, though: how competitors will go about countering the study's potentially devastating conclusions. The tests used Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 soft phone, which Business Division president Jeff Raikes announced yesterday would be released in beta later this month. The tests came in subjective and objective flavors. In the subjective portion, 32 individuals made calls under a variety of controlled conditions. They used American and British English, and spoke with and without background noise. The calls traveled over six types of network connections that simulated real-world conditions, in terms of factors like packet loss and jitter, that are typical with global wide area networks. Testers then rated the quality of the calls on a scale of one through five, representing poor through excellent. The objective portion used algorithms that reproduce the results of human testers with 95 percent accuracy, but don't get tired as quickly, to perform tests in larger volumes. The combined tests are typical analyses under the ITU G.1050 standard for evaluating multimedia transmission performance over IP networks. The outcome surprised the testers, according to Benjamin Ellis, VP of marketing and product management at Psytechnics. "We were kind of blown away by the results," he says. "To see that desktop software-based telephony outperformed an industry standard IP phone is actually quite a takeaway." The takeaway should be particularly useful to enterprise telephony managers, who Ellis says are intensely interested in both the potential benefits and the risks of replacing desktop phones with soft phones. "Obviously desktop phones can be comparatively costly, and inflexible compared to deploying on a PC," he notes. "But when you're talking about voice, a really big recurrent issue for people is voice quality. People have expectations around the quality of a phone call. And if you deploy a voice system that doesn't meet those, you've got a major issue on your hands."To Ellis, the matter is all but settled. "For the people battling with the question of 'Can I get as good a quality from my software based telephony from a PC compared to a desk phone,' the answer is yes," he asserts. "Not only can it be as good as a desktop phone, but it can actually be better if you're using the right software." That might not sit well with Cisco, whose 7961 model IP phone, working in conjunction with a standalone CallManager setup, served as the tests' basis for comparison. "The reason for the Cisco phone being in there is that you really have to compare [the soft phone] relative to something, so we picked a fairly industry standard IP phone that an enterprise might typically use, so it gives people a feeling of what it's like relative to a desktop phone." Of course, if Cisco isn't happy, there's a simple solution: commission its own tests using products it's sure will win the comparison. Either way, Psytechnics comes out a winner.