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Beware of geeks bearing 'presence'

Microsoft and others are hyping the possibility of computing systems that know where their users are and help others get in touch. But do you really want your boss to know when you haven't touched your keyboard for 20 minutes?

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
9 min read
Someday your PC will be able to tell minute-by-minute how others should communicate with you, based on where you are, what you're doing and who's trying to make contact. But for now, it would still be nice if you changed your instant messaging status when you go to lunch.


What's new:
The idea of "presence"--having your computer help others make smarter choices about how to reach you--is inching closer, particularly in products from Microsoft and IBM.

Bottom line:
Technical roadblocks and people issues, including privacy concerns and inertia, may delay implementation of presence.

More stories on this topic

That's the buzz as Microsoft, IBM and a host of related technology companies push the idea of "presence," the notion that computing systems will know where their users are and help others make smarter choices about how to get in touch. Instead of filling up your voice mail, correspondents will see that you're in a noncritical meeting and shoot you a discreet IM. Or your supervisor will see that you're out on a sales call and be routed to your cell phone, after passing a bosses-only interruption test.

That's how the story goes. For now, presence is limited to basic and often error-prone status-reporting tools used in IM clients, plus a few cutting-edge experiments to integrate IM and e-mail systems. True presence, where everybody who needs to contact you knows where you are and what you're doing, is years off and requires surmounting a host of technical, business and behavioral challenges.

"It's not on anybody's priority list for the next two or three years," said Melanie Turek, an analyst for Nemertes Research. "You're talking about spending a fair amount of money and changing the way people work for something where the payback is kind of soft. Anytime you say, 'It's going to make people more productive,' CIOs start to roll their eyeballs. They want something you can measure."

The promise of presence sounds convincing, though, when you listen to the two companies most likely to profit it from it, IBM and Microsoft. Advanced presence means integrating e-mail servers and corporate IM servers, voice communications and collaboration systems that allow remote access to centrally stored documents. Microsoft and IBM are the two companies with interests in all those areas.

"I think largely we'll see similar market share to what we see in e-mail," where Microsoft's Exchange and IBM's Lotus/Domino split the market, said Michael Osterman, founder of Osterman Research.

"We believe presence is one of those fundamental new capabilities that come along very rarely. (It lets) you look up and see who's around you."
--Gurdeep Singh Pall, Microsoft
Gurdeep Singh Pall, Microsoft's general manager for Live Communications Server (LCS), the company's enterprise IM server, considers presence a key building block for future software releases. The latest version of Microsoft's Office productivity software already includes some basic presence capability by integrating with a SharePoint collaboration server to display the status of a shared document and the people working on it. Future advances will add the Exchange e-mail server, Outlook e-mail client and voice systems to the mix.

"We believe presence is one of those fundamental new capabilities that come along very rarely," Pall said. In an electronic world, presence lets "you look up and see who's around you."

He gave this example of how it might work: "Let's say I'm offline, but the person who's calling is Bill Gates. The (presence) agent can see that this looks like an important call, and it should be forwarded to my cell phone. That's a very useful pivot."

Presence is also likely to get a substantial boost in a few years as Microsoft follows through on plans to incorporate its features in Longhorn, the next version of the Windows operating system. Chairman Bill Gates discussed presence in a recent interview with CNET News.com.

"I think the idea that your address book should be usable by other applications, that your calendar should be accessible by other applications--that is a big part of Longhorn," Gates said. "We move those rich user schemas down into the platform so that applications can all get at presence and phone numbers and annotate the address book, instead of things like each application having its own address book."

IDC Research Manager Robert Mahowald said support in Longhorn will be significant for popularizing presence support. "It means presumably more and more companies are going to have the infrastructure to roll this stuff out," he said. "It'll just be there on the desktop."

IBM has equally ambitious goals for presence, looking to build on its Sametime messaging system to enable intelligent access in a variety of settings, said Ken Bisconti, vice president of Workplace products for Lotus.

"Presence awareness for us is a very ubiquitous piece of information that can be used in many, many types of applications," Bisconti said. "IM is just one of them." Others include customer service online forums and team work spaces. "I see someone else is online, so I can bounce an idea off him," he said. "It gives you preferred methods of interruption and access."

Wait just a minute
But a number of technological factors are likely to make the march to presence a slow one, beginning with the current hodgepodge state of corporate IM. The majority of instant messaging in the workplace still occurs via consumer services such as those offered by America Online and Yahoo. Few companies have adopted internal messaging systems like Sametime and LCS, and fewer still have required employees to centralize on them, because neither consumer services nor corporate systems can talk to each other.

"IM has pretty much grown from the bottom up--people have installed their systems instead of waiting for IT to do it for them," Osterman said. "The lack of interoperability means that if you are forced by your employer to switch to a new IM system, you can't communicate with the people you used to, which is pretty hard to get people to accept." That makes interoperability the critical stumbling block "for near-term success with presence."

Microsoft and others are counting on adherence to the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) standard, which allows voice and Internet Protocol (IP) systems to work together, and the SIP for Instant Messaging (SIMPLE) to settle compatibility problems.

"We are fundamental believers in the idea of unified communications," Pall said. "That's one of the reasons we chose to go with SIP--you can take this system and work with your existing telephone network. SIP is absolutely the magic glue that brings all of this together."

But standards only solve part of the problem, said IDC's Mahowald. Presence data will contain a lot of information that companies are unlikely to want to share with the whole world. For true presence to work, there will need to be a "secure cloud" that can intelligently share presence information between different corporate systems.

"It's harder to hide when everybody can see what you're doing. I think there's going to be a big resistance to that. Maybe I don't want everyone to see that I haven't touched my keyboard in 15 minutes."
--Melanie Turek
Nemertes Research
"It's the technological problem of actually publishing my presence information outside the firewall into a secure cloud so someone else can see it--that's going to take a leap of faith," he said. "It's going to need some kind of honest, trusted broker in the middle." But at the moment, Mahowald doesn't envision any kind of a cloud above the Internet that's secure enough for corporations to be willing to use it.

Until that problem is solved, presence is likely to be restricted to internal silos within corporate firewalls. "That's where it may remain for a few years--internal use and trusted partners outside the company who can actually look at presence," Mahowald said. "I'm not sure when the next leap is going to happen to get it beyond that."

And technical problems may just be the start of the barriers. Human factors, ranging from privacy concerns to plain laziness, are likely to hamper adoption of any presence system that isn't fully automatic. After all, current IM clients offer a wealth of choices for signifying availability status, yet most folks display a steady "I'm available" all day.

Mark Stratton, senior vice president of global marketing for Siemens Information and Communication Networks, said human factors have turned out to be the biggest challenge in popularizing OpenScape, a Siemens application that integrates with Outlook to intelligently route correspondents among e-mail, IM, cell phones and landlines.

"We've learned that the big thing with presence is discipline in the end user," Stratton said. "If I have a presence state that never changes, it's not much different from no presence at all."

Stratton said an important factor is to motivate workers by showing how well-managed presence information can cut down on e-mail strings and eliminate phone tag.

Judy Quire, assistant to the president of the University of Kentucky, said such concrete results have been the key to winning rapid acceptance for IBM's Sametime messaging system among university administrators. "It definitely cuts down on phone tag--that's my biggest reason for loving it," she said. "If I can see someone's online, I can get an answer right away and it makes it easier for everyone."

Beyond that, presence systems have to work as automatically as possible, Stratton said. "The system needs to intelligently pull together signals from a lot of different sources." It needs to be able to look at your calendar, determine whether your cell phone is off or on, know which Bluetooth system you're connected to. "It's not a signal from a single environment that helps a system work," he said.

Microsoft's Pall agreed. "We need to make it as automatic as possible," he said. "If presence becomes another thing that I have to actively manage as part of my work, people will not use it as much as they could."

What, where and who?
But "where" and "what" are only part of the presence equation. Full use of presence will also require workers to think about the "who." Should your boss be able to interrupt whatever you're doing? Do only select co-workers have access to you when you're in the middle of a project?

Instead of forcing workers to think out hundreds of social decisions they make on an ad hoc basis, IT departments are likely to step in and set road rules for the entire company directory. That means presence won't be as intelligent as it could be, said Irene Greif, an IBM researcher specializing in collaborative user experiences.

"To make presence work, you either have to do a lot of work yourself to tailor your environment, or you make do with a very generic set of rules," she said. "I don't know what it would take to get people to make those kind of rules themselves."

Privacy is also likely to be a limiting factor, said Turek of Nemertes Research. "There's a certain concern about accountability," she said. "It's harder to hide when everybody can see what you're doing. I think there's going to be a big resistance to that. Maybe I don't want everyone to see that I haven't touched my keyboard in 15 minutes."

IBM's Bisconti said companies will figure out such issues based on corporate culture. In a fast-paced environment where everybody works together, presence information will be openly and transparently available. In a more layered corporate atmosphere, presence data will be metered out.

"The general cultural practice of using this tends to not be any different from using the phone or knocking on someone's door," he said. "You'll find that people respect the same business rules and norms as other modes of communication. Just because I can see (IBM CEO) Sam Palmisano is online doesn't mean I'm going to interrupt him for something trivial."

Greif added that acceptance of presence systems may also be partly a generational issue. Those who have grown up with IM will have less of a problem letting the world know what they're up to.

"I haven't seen anything in any enterprise that comes near to what AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) does with teenagers," she said. "My daughter went to college this year, and I know what she's doing minute-by-minute thanks to the way she uses AIM. I haven't seen that level of manually changing presence in any business setting."