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The history of presence
The idea of presence first emerged as early as 1977 with the Unix finger command, which could tell you whether your friend was connected. It later became popular with applications like ICQ (1996) and other forms of instant messaging (IM). Presence has traditionally been tied to IM, and only in the recent past has it become more common in the world of unified communications (UC) and VoIP.
Wainhouse Research expects that presence services will grow from $158 million in 2007 to $302 million by 2012. Brent Kelly, senior analyst and partner with Wainhouse, noted that these numbers may seem small compared with the number of users. The presence market is difficult to quantify because many vendors are either giving these capabilities away at a small price or bundling them into other applications.
The digital dial tone
The basic presence capability is fairly trivial, but its importance becomes more significant when integrated with other communications capabilities. Peter Saint-Andre, director of standards at Jabber Inc., explained: "People use presence to know who is around and whether they are available for a phone call. Why give someone a call if you don't know if they are available. By itself, presence is a fairly boring thing. It is like picking up the phone to see if there is a dial tone. You are interested in the dial tone because you know whether you can complete the call when you pick up the phone. It is really a trigger or a catalyst for communication, as opposed to something that is of intrinsic interest on its own."
Basic presence simply indicates whether someone is online. More sophisticated capabilities, sometimes referred to as rich presence, can provide more granularity in communicating real-time or near-real-time information about a communications recipient. According to Will Sheward, VP of marketing at Isode, this could describe recipients' technical capabilities and whether they can do things like upgrade the connection to a shared whiteboard, voice or video connection.
Another area of rich presence lies in improved calendar integration. If someone is in a meeting, the caller can see what time that person will be free and plan the communication accordingly.
Integrating presence to improve workflow
Traditional presence automation has been minimal. If you have an IM client up and running but have not interacted for a while, there is an auto-away feature. More sophisticated forms of automation can be integrated with enterprise applications, such as workflows, to help increase productivity. For example, an ERP app might have various workflows, such as purchase orders that need to be approved. With presence-enabled intelligent routing, a request can be sent to an available manager rather than requiring the frontline employee to hunt down the best person.
"This has a lot more power because I can potentially have a more rich interaction [since] it lets me solve problems right away," Saint-Andre said. "Now I have more telecommunications modalities and can know what other people are doing, and can pick and choose what we do based on capabilities."
Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS), one of the leading communication front ends used by 174 of the Fortune 500 companies, provides users with deep control over their presence information in four basic areas:
- Easy and automatic way to get presence information.
OCS 2007 uses three sources of presence information: logging state, calendar integration (i.e., free/busy, in a meeting, etc.), and call status (i.e., whether or not you are in a call).
- Ability to manually set presence and custom presence states.
For example, users can change their presence and set themselves to "Do Not Disturb," which will stop incoming messages from everyone except those designated by users.
- Access levels.
Users can control how much information they want to show to other users by bucketing their contacts in various groups that have different levels of information published to them.
- Ability to publish and make available in other applications.
Presence information is directly available in OCS applications and can be embedded in other line-of-business (LOB) applications.
Yancey Smith, group product manager, Unified Communications Group at Microsoft, noted: "Often, unified communications capabilities were very closely tied to the hardware; for example, IP-based vendors promoted the use of their phones -- and the limited user interface (UI) associated with those IP phones -- to write business applications. Microsoft is offering a software-based platform that spans the desktop, servers and mobile devices.
"This software-based approach, combined with code samples, allows us to mobilize many developers writing software to include a long list of unified communications capabilities," Smith continued. "These capabilities include rich presence, click to communicate, notifications via Office Communicator-compatible clients and ordinary telephones, as well as inbound self-service applications -- either via automated agents (bots) or speech technology-enabled IVR applications. All those capabilities are offered by Microsoft Unified Communications right out of the box and with full extensibility using Visual Studio."
Benefits of controlled adoption
Enterprises are finding significant benefits from the use of presence in helping reduce the time required to find people and in responding to new opportunities or disasters in a more timely manner. Cisco reported that a recent survey found 62% of government IT personnel indicated that presence was very important or somewhat important to agency missions.
Federal interest in presence technologies "may come from the fact that agencies want to know where their workforce is [in order] to be able to look at the effectiveness and the efficiency of what they're able to do," said Aaron Heffron, vice president of Market Connections, a market research firm that regularly conducts telephone surveys for Cisco. "They want to be in contact with them at all times."
In Washington, D.C., a group of government agencies is deploying the CapWIN network to tie together the presence and communications systems of the FBI and police from Maryland, Virginia and D.C. The presence system enables any authorized user to find the closest emergency response person regardless of his affiliation. For example, if there is an accident on a bridge, the closest officer can respond to it instead of waiting for an officer from the same jurisdiction, who may be farther away.
"If I am in an accident, I don't care what jurisdiction you are from," Saint-Andre said. "I just want someone to show up. With presence, location and rich ID information and real-time technologies, we can enable the best response to a situation."
Other enterprises are finding that presence can improve the flow of information, leading to a more effective workforce, significant financial savings and, in some cases, even saving lives. For example, McKesson Health Solutions CareEnhance nurse-triage service has deployed presence-enabled messaging to allow home nurses and support staff to work out of the home. If an emergency call comes in, the presence system allows the service to contact the best nurse for the call, even if she is involved in another, lower-priority call.
Presence supports devices and people
At the cutting edge, presence is being extended to support devices as well.
For example, Oracom has developed presence-enabled network diagrams for tracking the health of networking equipment. These kinds of systems can also show the throughput or ambient temperature.
Other companies are using presence information to track vehicles. The military is starting to use the technology to display information about vehicles in a convoy or ships at sea. These same kinds of systems can be used in the enterprise to aggregate information about sales and the status of various operations. "You can presence-enable anything and then graph interesting things based on that information," said Peter Saint-Andre, director of standards at Jabber Inc.
TiVO recently moved its entire notification system for millions of home recording units over to the XMPP presence protocol. Millions of boxes are used to poll the server for new information every 15 minutes. Because information updates are issued on an irregular schedule, most of that polling was wasting resources at the TiVO server end. At each poll, the server would have to respond with "Nothing here for you." As the TiVO user base grew, the strain on central resources became immense. Now TiVO uses XMPP every time the TiVO server has something new to push, which drastically reduces the load on the server.
George Lawton is a journalist based near San Francisco, California.