Is unified communications presence good enough?

Burton Group analyst Mike Gotta says the presence technology offered by unified communications is strong, but enterprises will need something more than a technology that helps employees open up lines of communication. He says social presence, something akin to social networking, will emerge soon.

Should you expect more from presence than what your unified communications vendor is offering?

Most leading vendors today offer some form of presence integrated into their unified communications (UC) platforms. This technology gives users a snapshot of their colleagues' communications state. It can reveal where people are, whether they are available for communication, and the best way to contact them.

Mike Gotta, senior analyst with the Burton Group, says the presence technology offered by leading UC vendors today is valuable -- but narrow in scope.

"It's overwhelmingly around telephony, VoIP, instant messaging. It's about connecting in a communications way," Gotta said. "If you look at an IM-type presence system, they give you: 'I'm at my desk. I'm out to lunch. I'm on the road.' It tells you the state of somebody's ability to communicate with you. But it only gives you just that one thing. There's no sense of presence over time. I don't know where you're traveling. I don't know who you were on the phone with earlier."

Gotta suggests that presence might be too important to leave to UC vendors. A new kind of presence has to emerge in the enterprise. He's not sure where it will come from exactly, but it will look something like social networking. He describes it as social presence. He outlined this concept recently in a post on Collaborative Thinking blog entitled Presence Is Too Important to Leave to UC Vendors.

"Look at the social networking world -- the newsfeed in Facebook, the friend feed in Twitter. These types of tools give you a different sense of presence than unified communications vendors do," Gotta said. "When I look at the Twitter friend feed … I can self-synchronize myself in the conversation. Not only do I self-synchronize myself into the conversation by reading things over time, but I can see the things they were touching that day, whether they were doing blog posts or something else. You don't get one record telling somebody about their communication state, but you can actually fill in the white space with all these little bread crumbs."

Gotta said this gives the user a chronological understanding of what his colleagues are doing -- a sense of what the other person is doing rather than just whether that person is available.

This is especially important for collaboration among people who don't see one another every day, he said. It's also about building a sense of community within a large organization and across organizations.

"This is mostly about relationship building," Gotta said. "It's a community-building type of mechanism. This is about the people who we have a weaker tie to, that we might cooperate with or share information with, but we're not on a project with them. In a global organization, I know there is somebody [in another office] who is a subject-matter expert, so you might want to follow what they're doing, just peeking over their shoulder."

Gotta said the presence engines of most UC vendors are based on the SIP SIMPLE protocol, which facilitates different forms of UC communication. It's a transactional system that isn't designed to share the rich details that social presence requires. Some vendors, such as Microsoft (with its Office Communications Server), are adding rich presence, which allows users to include more information about themselves. But it still doesn't enable the chronological view that Gotta is describing.

Vendors have used presence as a competitive advantage so far, trying to build the bigger, better presence engine, he said. There has been little interest in integrating presence across different UC vendors' platforms, let alone integrating with the social networking technologies involved in social presence. And interoperability among vendors would be a key to any kind of social presence. Without true interoperability, not enough information can be shared.

"The vendors have used presence as a competitive advantage, not for the good of organizations," Gotta said. "If you look at Microsoft's rich presence capabilities in OCS, it doesn't share that level of granularity with other systems. So literally, I could be staring at information coming from a Microsoft application with very specific information, but then I could look at that same person with an IBM application or a Cisco application and just get 'out of the office.' So I've lost faith that vendors really want to interoperate in the UC world when it comes to presence. They want to hijack presence and use it for their own strategic purposes, to further their product lines."

"[UC vendors] have had their chance. They've had their time," Gotta said. "The industry should say: 'Go ahead and do your thing. Be very effective for communication. But this bigger, richer presence -- that bus is gone, and we've moved it over here to the social networking platforms using a specific publish-and-subscribe model, and we're going to open it up.' "

Gotta isn't sure where enterprise social presence will come from yet. He said IBM or Microsoft could emerge with something, although he's skeptical of that. Or it could come from a vendor that is completely unexpected, like NewsGator. It could also emerge from open source.

"You can't go out and buy this right now," he said.

Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst of Unified Communications Strategies, said companies are going to be more open to using social networking within a company in the coming years, as enterprise-grade tools become more reliable and secure. However, to achieve the level of social presence that Gotta is proposing might require integration with public social networking technologies as well. She said that is unlikely to happen. Most companies won't want to open up like that.

"It needs to be enterprise-grade and public. It's unlikely that will happen," Pleasant said. "But there can still be an aggregator of all different types of presence sources – devices, telephony presence, mobile devices. It would be useful to have an aggregator for all that."

Presence is the core of UC, she said, but it's also still in its very early stages. Enterprises are still figuring out how to use it, setting out rules for who can see what and under what circumstances. There are still security issues and simple etiquette issues to work out. Integrating social presence into that could get even more confusing.

"I don't want everybody necessarily to be able to see my presence all the time," Pleasant said. "If someone is following my presence work-wise, I don't necessarily want them to see my social presence. And vice versa."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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