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Presence debate heats up at Catalyst

Presence is still lagging when it comes to enterprise deployments. Some blame the lack of federation. A panel of experts at last week's Catalyst Conference touched on the technology and debated where it is and where it should go.

SAN FRANCISCO -- There's no question that presence technology eliminates phone tag and some of the hassles involved with trying to reach the appropriate person through the right method.

But at Burton Group's Catalyst Conference last week, three vendors leading the presence surge sat down to discuss the technology, where they see it going, and what they would like it to do for them and for the enterprise.

The problem with presence right now, experts said, is that there is no standardization or federation. Currently, not every presence technology works with every application or with products from other vendors.

We still have not really widely deployed presence and leveraged it within organizations.
David Marshak
Senior Product Manager, Real-Time and Activity-Centric CollaborationIBM
Federated presence, for example, would mean that a company using one vendor's presence server would be able to connect with and see the presence of someone using a presence server from another vendor. With federated presence, the servers would communicate with each other, meaning someone using Cisco's presence server could talk to someone using a server from Microsoft and so on, eliminating the communication silos. So far, experts said, federation is a sticking point, though there is still a lot of testing.

Peter Saint-Andre, executive director of Jabber, said the step to really kicking presence into high gear is to create an atmosphere of interoperation; this could be difficult because different vendors have different ideas about what presence should be and how it should be used.

Saint-Andre said the standards are out there and ready to interoperate, and vendors need to latch onto that.

Paul Haverstock, an architect in Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, said that although interoperation is key, his vision of presence creates a virtual community where people can do more in a timely fashion. He said the value of being able to live and work in real time will drive presence technology into the future and ultimately to interoperability.

"The key to it is reach," Haverstock said. "It's all about finding people online. I want to be able to see them online and reach them when they're there.… We're just at the beginning of tapping into the value of real-time communication and collaboration."

But that reach, some say, is not obtainable without federated presence.

David Marshak, senior project manager for real-time and activity-centric collaboration at IBM, said lack of federation may be where presence has hit hurdles in reaching the enterprise.

"We still have not really widely deployed presence and leveraged it within organizations," Marshak said, later adding that "we're very close to having interoperability and federation at some level."

Marshak later noted, however, that "there's still a lot of work to be done."

By work, he said, he meant that applications need to be built out and communities need to grow beyond the traditional buddy list concept.

With federation, presence would become somewhat synonymous with email. But Haverstock said users may not want presence to be as readily available as email. With email, users can contact pretty much anyone once they have an address. With federated presence, some fear that unwanted people would be able to see whether you're available and which is the best way to contact you.

Saint-Andre agreed, adding, "You don't necessarily want to talk to everyone."

Presence also falls short, Marshak said, when it comes to proving to corporate users that the person contacting them is indeed who he says he is.

Even if federation were out of the way, the question would remain about how presence would be aggregated once everyone had it, Saint-Andre said.

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Despite some of the hurdles, all three panelists agreed that presence is a productivity booster when used correctly. It can help users see who is available to communicate with them and whether phone, IM, email or another method of communication is the best way to connect. In some cases, a person's presence can also show what project they are working on and whether or not they want to be contacted.

Marshak said he'd love to see more granularity with presence, meaning his presence could change when he sets his phone to silent or vibrate, or he could set parameters concerning who can contact him and when, based on presence.

"Who can interrupt me on what topic with what priority," he said.

But technology to fill those voids is surely not far off, the experts said.

For now, however, worry about federation should be put on the back burner, Haverstock suggested. Instead, organizations should be looking at their presence options and deciding on which they would like to deploy, then worrying about enhancements.

"The first step is getting this stuff deployed," Haverstock said. "The next step is getting out the applications. Let a company choose and focus on applications -- that's the value."

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