communications solutions providers refer to ‘presence,’ often what they mean is relatively static information that let users make decisions manually as they go about performing everyday business processes like determining who to call, and when, and at what number.
The classic example of presence is an instant message “buddy list” that shows the status of other users. In recent years this functionality has been extended to telephony systems so that users can see if someone is available and reachable by phone.
This type of information is undoubtedly useful, and saves people time by helping them avoid phone tag and other inefficient practices. But BlueNote Networks (News
), a company that makes communications software based on SOA/Web Services, thinks presence can be much, much more than static information people use to make decisions manually.
Introducing SessionSuite Presence Service
Today, BlueNote announced that it is adding a new set of capabilities called Presence Service to its family of SessionSuite products.
Essentially what the new capabilities do is let companies set up automated communications functions that use presence information to intelligently route calls and perform other business processes without human intervention.
“Presence Service allows our customers to offer contextual call routing
capabilities that are typically only available in call center products and only in the enterprise to employees who happen to be call center agents,” BlueNote’s director of product line management, Alan Rosenberg, told TMCnet. “We're taking intelligent routing features and functions and making them available to ordinary business functions and ordinary employees within the enterprise.”
Presence Service is being added to BlueNote’s platform products: SessionSuite Enterprise Edition (for corporate communications services) and SessionSuite SOA Edition (superset of Enterprise Edition that offers a toolkit and exposes APIs so customers can integrate voice capabilities into software apps and Web sites and business processes).
The new capabilities also are being added to BlueNote’s client products: SessionSuite Desktop (Windows PC rich softphone) and SessionSuite WebCaller (thin client for Web-based applications).
Taking Presence to a New Level
The new presence features BlueNote announced today are cutting-edge because the presence information, instead of simply being displayed in a buddy list format, is integrated deeply into business functions and processes.
To illustrate how this works, Rosenberg used a hypothetical example of a bank with four branches offices and three loan offices. An employee at one of the offices needs to get in touch with a loan officer. Instead of inefficiently accessing a list of the officers and dialing each of them until one is reached, the employee instead goes to a SessionsSuite-enabled Web application and clicks a button that says “Find a Loan Officer.” The system then examines presence information to intelligently determine which person identified as a loan officer is available and where that person is—then sets up a call automatically.
Rosenberg stressed that the idea of presence is not new, but it is a relatively recent addition to voice communications, and what BlueNote is doing with the concept is even newer still.
“A lot of the unified communications products that have been introduced in the past couple years have some basic voice presence capabilities built into them,” Rosenberg said. “What they've done is extended what has existed for instant messaging. That’s a little bit more efficient than the way we've historically made phone calls, where I would just pick up the phone, call you, and you may or may not be there, but it still places the onus on the user to look at the buddy list and make an intelligent decision based on information displayed to them.”
The Power of Web Services APIs
Rosenberg said studies show about 75 percent of business calls still end up in voicemail. To pare that number down, BlueNote decided to tie presence capabilities into the application programming interface
(APIs) capabilities of its products to make presence more useful in a business environment. This, he said, is different from the approach taken by most unified communications product vendors.
“We are exposing this presence service in the form of easy-to-use Web Services APIs so that our customers can take this information and use it as part of a business process or as part of a software application to automatically route calls to individuals based on their availability, activity, location, role, spoken language, or whatever specific attributes might be of particular interest to a particular business,” Rosenberg explained.
The use of high-level Web Services APIs is a key differentiator for BlueNote both in relation to the new presence features and to its product line more broadly.
“We’re making presence information available in the form of high-level Web Services APIs so that programmers who don't have any specific telephony background or any familiarity with BlueNote can integrate this into applications relatively quickly and easily,” Rosenberg said.
Keeping it SIMPLE
To make its presence capabilities even more useful over the long term, BlueNote built its new features based on the Internet Engineering Task Force’s SIMPLE standard. Rosenberg predicted that SIMPLE will be widely adopted in the industry as the presence standard of choice, a trend already seen by Microsoft and Cisco (News
) adopting the specifications.
Rosenberg said SIMPLE defines two different types of entities involved in delivering presence: "presentities" and "watchers." A presentity could be a phone, or BlueNote’s SessionSuite Desktop softphone. This type of entity tells the presence server the status of users—that a particular person is on the phone, for example.
The watcher entity, meanwhile, performs useful tasks based on presence information fed to it. In the case of BlueNote’s products, the watcher is a voice-enabled application like the Web application in the bank example. The watcher routes calls to specific people based on their assigned roles or attributes.
SIMPLE further defines a data model consisting of elements and attributes. Essentially these specify meta-data about people and business processes such as roles (label given to a particular person, such as “loan officer) and activities (such as “on the phone” or “in a meeting”).
“SIMPLE defines a number of standard elements and attributes,” Rosenberg told TMCnet. “We support the standard elements and attributes. But we also allow our customers to define their own elements and attributes that might be unique to a specific business. In the bank example, the data model could be expanded by adding roles labeled ‘loan manager,’ ‘mortgage specialist,’ and ‘portfolio manager.’ You can use this information to do direct calls to somebody based on any element or attribute.”
Because BlueNotes’ Presence Service is standards-based, it allows for interoperability with other solutions that also conform to SIMPLE.
SesssionSuite Presence Service in the Real World
The bank example earlier in this article illustrated how BlueNote’s new presence capabilities can be used by a company. Rosenberg offered another example to further show applications for the technology being discussed here.
In this example, a sales organization has set up rules regarding which employees can approve discounts up to particular levels. A Director of Sales can approve discounts up to 20 percent, a Regional VP of Sales can approve discounts up to 30 percent, and a U.S. VP of Sales can approve discounts up to 40 percent. Discounts above 40 percent must be approved by the CEO.
Just as is the case with most such companies, this organization uses a salesforce automation tool so the sales team can put together quotes and manager accounts. The organization also uses BlueNote’s WebCaller software to add a voice-enabled Web application to the mix so employees can more efficiently manage quotes and customers.
One particular sales person is working on a quote for a customer. It’s a hot deal, and he needs to get back to the customer with a 30 percent discount by the end of the day in order to close the sale. Instead of randomly dialing through a list of people authorized to approve discounts until he gets an answer, the sales person instead uses the Web application, clicking a button labeled “Get 30 Percent Discount Authorization.”
The application server
then queries the SessionSuite presence service for the name of someone who is available and is labeled as having the role of approving 30 percent or higher discounts. The presence server then determines that the best match is the U.S. VP of Sales, and returns that information to the application server. The application then sets up a phone call between the sales specialist and the VP of Sales—it all happens automatically.
Expanding the Definition of Presence for Ordinary Business Processes
The sales organization and bank examples illustrate how the definition of ‘presence’ can be expanded from static information used manually by people to deep integration with software systems to streamline business processes.
Rosenberg said there are several potential definitions for ‘presence.’ The most traditional one is indicating somebody’s status or availability in a buddy list. This functionality can be integrated with a calendar to show when particular people are in meetings or on vacation.
Then, there is ‘rich presence,’ which Rosenberg said refers not to a dynamic system per say, but the addition or more detailed information about users—such as their spoken language, roles, skills sets, etc.
“There are a number of applications today that expose this information in the form of a buddy list,” Rosenberg said. “What we're doing is bring that to the next level and allow businesses to easily integrate this information into any type of application.”
He added: “Presence can be used to streamline and improve any type of business process.”
Rosenberg went on to say that the type of call routing capabilities BlueNote is offering traditionally have only been available in call and contact centers. In those settings, applications have been available with similar functionality—but with a very steep price tag.
“Call center applications can price out as much as $2,000 per seat,” he said. “These features and functions are made available for high-traffic, high-volume call centers but typically not for ordinary employees. We're extending presence to mean being able to leverage contextual call routing for ordinary business functions and ordinary workers.”
BlueNote’s Presence Service will be available with all the company’s SessionSuite products starting in the fourth quarter of 2007 (October).