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Gates wants to make his presence felt

The Microsoft chairman thinks there are some powerful tasks the computer can tackle once it knows whether--and how--you are available.

Anyone who has ever used an instant-messaging program has seen the basic idea of presence. That little status bar that says "available," "away," "out to lunch" or "cursing the Mets" is your presence--the computer's understanding of how and under what means you are available.

Today, that information is stored on the computer, but is mostly acted on by other people. Perhaps you see that someone's status is busy, so you send them an e-mail asking them to call rather than pestering them with an IM. Or, you see that someone is available on their mobile, so you know they are out of the office and send an SMS.

But Bill Gates has been urging folks inside Microsoft to make far more use of that information. Computers should be able to take actions on their own based on a user's presence. Essentially, he says, the computer as an "intelligent agent," basically the personal assistant that most of us just wish we had. If the computer can determine, based on a user's calendar, that she only has an hour at the desk, it can prioritize a collection of tasks, e-mail and voice mail that appear to be most urgent based on what it knows to be her priorities.

"He is very interested in how machines can consume presence and what new scenarios that can open up," Microsoft Vice President Gurdeep Singh Pall said in a brief chat we had after the company's unified communications launch on Tuesday.

Things will take a big step toward that vision as the telephone network merges with the computer network. The combination can allow the phone to know whether a user is in a meeting and play a particular recording or, conversely, the instant-messaging program can know automatically whether a user is on the phone.

There are other ways for the computer to get a richer sense of presence, though some of these do raise some privacy concerns. A Web camera on top of the computer, for example, could sense whether you are at your desk or not and relay that information to your instant-messaging and other programs.

Speaking of presence, Gates has quite a presence on News.com right now. Our newsmaker interview is up on the site today along with a new video. There's also the story from yesterday on Gates' unfinished business as well as another video.