The magic of 'presence'
March 2007

Presence is one of the in-words of the telecoms and web industry for the last few years. It sits alongside Location based services as a capability that is still to "realise its full potential". A Wikipedia overview of presence can be found here.

I have used Google Alerts for the last couple of years to track market activity of technologies and companies that are of interest to me and presence has been one of the key words that I have looked at. These are typical of the results I see pouring into my in-tray each week:

As you can see, I havn't seen too many announcements about presence from a telecommunications perspective!

Presence is a very broad church and like the word platform everyone uses it with their own interpretation. Wikipedia defines presence as "A user client may publish a presence state to indicate its current communication status." Let's go through some examples of presence as it used today.

One of the most simple examples of presence has been around for many years and that can be seen in email clients like Outlook by using an Out of Office auto reply message. I say simple, but in a typical Microsoft way it can be quite complicated to set up if you are not using an Exchange server. However that aside, by using this facility you can indicate to anyone that sends you an email that you are away from the office for a time. You can use this message to just say that you are not around or it could be helpful by providing an alternative contact.

The use Out of Office feature brings us straight way to the fact that using it can create problems! For example, I am a member of many news groups and Out of the Office auto-responses do create problems as everyone in the newsgroup receives them. following each and every post. If the group is very active, they can really build up and rapidly become an irritant.

Another simple use of presence information can be found on web sites and in email signatures. The one shown on the left is in an email from VerticalResponse where they show information about if their support organisation is open. This is an application of presence showing the availability of the support team.

This shows an interesting aspect of presence. Someone may be present but do they wish to be available? These are different concepts and need to be considered separately. Rolling them together can create all sorts of problems as we will see later.

The VerticalResponse signature shown above shows a live presence element. When Live Chat is available it is shown in green and I assume when it is not available it is shown as Not Available in red (I havn't seen this). One company that helps provide this type of capability is Contact at Once. According to their web site they use their presence engine to "continually monitor the availability of advertiser sales representatives across multiple devices and aggregates the availability status of each representative into an advertiser-level availability or “presence.”

Another company that provides a presence engine is Jabber: "By integrating presence—i.e., information about the availability of entities, end-points, and content for communication over a network—into applications, devices, and systems you can streamline processes and increase the velocity of information within your organization. Discover the latest best practices organizations are implementing to take advantage of the benefits of adding presence to business processes."

Although they offer Instant Messaging services described below they focus on integrating presence information into enterprise process flows to increase the efficiency of business processes. The available flag is an example of this as is the automatic routing of internal calls to an available expert or an available person in a company's call centre.

On of the most common application of presence is in Instant Messaging (IM) services where you are able to set your status to be on-line or Away. The picture on the right is the status options in Microsoft Messenger.

On the left below is Yahoo Messenger. It is interesting to note the addition of the Invisible to Everyone option. Why is this supplied I wonder? Most instant messaging services and some PC-to-PC VoIP services provide an option to set your availability status. Many users have found that this capability can create real problems.

When you boot your PC, your status is set to On-line automatically. Annoyingly, this often leads to several of your buddies saying "Hi" or work colleagues asking you questions immediately!

Away status. You can choose to set an Away status automatically after say 5 minutes. The IM or VoIP service detects that you are away because you have not touched your keyboard or mouse. As soon as you return to your PC and touch the keyboard you are placed On-line again and open to immediate interruption just as you start working. This is just the exact opposite of what you want!

Multiple services. When you use several services such as IM, VoIP or calendar it is highly unlikely that you will set your status on every application before your leave your desk so that they do not reliably reflect your real status.

These problems can become so severe that the only solution is for many is to opt to appear to be Off-line permanently destroying any benefits of sharing status information.

One of the problems with presence being built into many on-line applications is that you need to set your status on every single one of them every time it changes or your will not see any benefit. There are quite a few companies who aggregate presence information. One such company is PRESENCEWORKS that enables you to integrate presence information from instant messaging into your pre-existing business software as shown below.

In my post about the Would u like to collaborate with YuuGuu? I showed their initial presence option. In its current simple form, this is of limited use because of the difference between presence and Availability. For example when I contacted YuuGuu, Philip was shown as being Available but it was half an hour later when he came back to me saying he was on another call thus demonstrating that he was not Available.

Many new social network services claim to use presence as a component to their service. This is so common it could be said to be ubiquitous. A good example of this is NeuStar who provide "next generation messaging" technology to service providers. To quote their web site: "Presence services enable people within a community to keep connected anytime, any place. When they indicate their availability or see that their contacts are on-line, presence is a catalyst for interactive services for those users who demand an enriched communications environment."

This capability is similar to that seen in IM services. If your mobile phone is on, you are deemed to be available unless you manually set your status to be unavailable.

Another provider of presence technology is iotum who produce a Relevance Engine™ that can be used as the basis of a number of services.

One of the core applications is call handling: "When someone calls you, iotum’s Relevance Engine instantly identifies the caller and cross-references their identity with your address book. Within a fraction of a second, iotum understands the relationship you have with this person.

Just as quickly, iotum accesses your IM presence status and/or online calendar program to determine what you are doing at that moment. It determines which of your communications devices should receive the call and helps to ensure your phone will only ring if you want it to, based on your schedule, your defined preferences and your past behaviour."

A recent mobile social networking service that uses presence is  jaiku from Finland. Jaiku uses what it terms to be Rich Presence. This is about texting presence updates to your community from any phone.

Note: The above is an old picture and shows how information on your mobile phone can be used to interpret your presence or availability.

These free-form messages can show availability and they can show location but will often just show an irrelevant message commenting on something that is currently happening to the text sender - just like SMS messages really!

Which brings us to Twitter. Twitter is similar in many ways to Jaiku, in that it is a "global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? Answer on your phone, IM, or right here on the web!"

Sam Sethi at Vecosys recently posted a good update on Twitter and its ecosystem - The Twitterfication of the blogosphere.

One of the big challenges of today's on-line world is information overload and although there can be useful presence and availability information contained in Twitter updates if users control what they post, I'm sure that this is often not the case. Twitter is useful and fun in a social context but because of the baggage that goes along with it, I suspect that it will be of limited use in focused business applications today.

I do not use Twitter at the moment so I guess my last post shown above will remain as my current status forever?

This is but a brief overview of the world of presence and I have missed out many areas of interest. I will try and talk about these in future posts. Like Location Based Services, Presence is full of intrigue and promise. We shall see what happens in coming years.

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