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Unified Communications Magazine July 2007                                                                                                                Volume 1 / Number 1



Presence Gets a Life

By Peter Saint-Andre, SIP Specific - Presence Enabled


Poor presence! People treat it as just a catalyst for communication, a kind of universal dialtone for instant messaging (IM), Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), video chat, and other real-time interactions. I know I've been guilty of that too. At industry talks, I've said that presence is boring because no one picks up the phone to listen to the dialtone, so why should they pay attention to "mere" presence? Well I was wrong!

Recent developments in the "Web 2.0" space show that thousands of people are indeed interested in pure presence information. However, it's not basic network availability that they're interested in, since always-on connectivity is almost considered a given these days. Instead, people want to see what their friends and co-workers and even total strangers are doing (Twitter, Jaiku), what music they are listening to (last.fm, Pandora), where they are traveling (Plazes), what photos they are taking (Flickr), what websites they are visiting (Me.dium), what they are blogging about (RSS and Atom feeds), and a dozen other aspects of their online and offline existence.

This is really a kind of "social presence". In IM systems, presence has always been social because it's been shared with the people in your buddy list, and creative IM users have used presence status messages to report that they are "in a meeting" or "at lunch" or "working on a big report" or doing something else that might be of interest to their contacts.

But these new services have liberated the status message from the confines of IM and have given it a life of its own. Now you can post your status on a special website via a browser, IM client, or mobile phone, enabling your buddies (or the whole world) to see your status and subscribe to updates about what you're doing. Some of these services also take your existing RSS feeds (from blogs, music sites, geolocation services, and the like) as further input, bringing us closer to realizing Yale computer scientist David Gelertner's concept of the lifestream.

Is social presence a passing fad? Don't bet on it. Many "serious" industry observers thought IM (the original presence application) was only teen chat - until this supposedly frivolous technology started turning up on the desks of Wall Street investment bankers and the communication consoles of naval weapons officers. The same was true of blogging, which was thought of as a form of teenage narcissism until corporate CEOs and presidential candidates were forced by the pressure of societal change to start weblogs of their own. Ditto for wikis, online auctions, virtual worlds, and many other cuttingedge technologies.

How might social presence infiltrate the enterprise? Since social presence is a something of a cross between lightweight blogging and multi-user text chat, we could envision a corporate lifestream in which salespeople and sales engineers track each others' rich presence to produce and share in team success:

Bob: "at the DooDads account in Atlanta"

Steve: "@bob tell ‘em Widgets Inc. is rolling out next week"

Bob: "@steve will do"

Bob: "any deployment issues on OpenBSD with Berkeley DB?"

Julie: "@bob nope, GewGaws has that setup and it's been rock-solid"

Bob: "@julie thanks!"

Bob: "hmm, can we roll out a 10k user pilot by end of Q2?"

Dave: "@bob should be doable"

Bob: "@dave great"

Bob: "OK DooDads 10k pilot signed!"

Karen: "@bob congrats!"

But this kind of social interaction is not limited to people. Status data might be automatically generated by teams, product lines, investments, factories, purchase orders, shipments, and many other aspects of an organization's lifestream. Open, innovative companies who push that data to appropriate individuals (even to partners and suppliers) will improve communication and gain competitive advantage.

As we've discussed in previous columns, there are many challenges involved in gathering, deploying, and using presence in a productive fashion. Event-driven presence middleware needs to handle the flood of transient notifications generated by thousands or millions of points of presence in an organization. IT managers need to become comfortable with "good enough" delivery to achieve low latency in an environment where the useful half-life of presence information is constantly shrinking. Application developers need to use flexible data formats (such as XML) that can be easily extended to address a constantly-changing set of information requirements.

Paradoxically, perhaps the least difficult aspect of presence-enabling organizations will be to educate end users regarding the possibilities and pitfalls of presence technologies, because they are already dipping their feet into the water (or diving in head first!) by experimenting with the rapidly emerging social presence applications available on the Internet today. End users are leading the way, and IT is increasingly playing catch-up in a fast-changing world that is made ever faster by the roll-out of presence-enabled technologies for real-time communication. But that's the power of presence in action!

Peter Saint-Andre is Director of Standards at Jabber, Inc. For more information, please visit the company online at www.jabber.com.

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