Planning for 'Presence'

By Jeff Vance

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Presence technology is being hyped as the cornerstone of the emerging "real-time enterprise." The idea is that no matter where you are or what device you're on, your key contacts will know exactly how best to reach you.

Presence is getting a foothold through one application in particular: instant messaging (IM). And, much like email and the Web, IM is penetrating the enterprise through the back door.

Most organizations have yet to formulate IM strategies, let alone to start thinking about presence but, even so, IM usage within the enterprise is on the rise.

"By and large, the business community has ignored IM," said Robert Mahowald, program director for collaborative computing for the market-research firm IDC. "Last year, the total IM market was $300 million and that included everything from administration to security."

The market could spike, however, once presence stitches the various forms of communications together.

Ideally, presence technology cuts across organizational and technological boundaries. In the presence-enabled world, you would know whether to contact someone via voice, email, SMS message, or IM; thus avoiding time wasted in voice mailboxes and waiting for email responses. The problem with this, though, is how to make it happen.

"Standards adoption will drive the growth of presence applications, said Maxime Seguineau, CEO of Antepo, a provider of enterprise IM and presence solutions.

"The industry is moving towards a unified environment, at least at the signaling level. For the telecom industry, there is unification around SIP. For application messaging, most of the activity centers on XMPP since it offers more features and flexibility from a data standpoint."

There are several difference between SIP (session initiation protocol), its IM- and presence-focused variant SIMPLE (SIP instant messaging and presence leveraging extensions), and XMPP (extensible messaging and presence protocol). But the main difference lies in the fact that SIP/SIMPLE comes from the telecom community and employs a peer-to-peer communications model while XMPP was developed with data in mind and employs a client-server structure based on XML.

A Few Obstacles

Muddying the waters even more is Microsoft's presence and IM solution, Live Communications Server, which uses the telecom variant SIP/SIMPLE but, as Microsoft is wont to do, it has created its own proprietary version of SIP/SIMPLE.

This then points to an obstacle to the spread of presence: interoperability.

There are good arguments made in favor of each standard, so in the near term the most obvious solution to the problem is some kind of gateway structure, which is what startups like Antepo and Jabber offer.

Two other obstacles to presence are legacy support, which could also be addressed via gateways, and corporate privacy issues.

"With many enterprises, I think you'll see a reluctance to publish presence lists," Mahowald said. "Microsoft's answer for this is a clearinghouse of known users."

In essence, businesses could sign up for a service where users are validated by a trusted entity.

"Many enterprises will hold presence information close to the vest," said Joe Hildebrand, CTO for Jabber, a provider of presence and messaging solutions. "They won't want outsiders to access presence information unless they authorize it."

Hildebrand pointed to another potential solution, the use of certificates, since certificates are already in use for such things as e-commerce.

Another major obstacle to the wider adoption of presence is most CIOs don't understand the business case for the technology even though it is linked to another application that is rapidly gaining traction in the enterprise: collaboration.

"Collaborative applications will be presence enabled soon," Mahowald said.

He believes the next target for presence is voice, but noted collaboration would be close behind. Even things like desktop phones, once given the additionally capabilities of presence (a la VoIP), can be linked with data-centric collaborative or conferencing applications.

"Once presence becomes part of active directory or LDAP then other applications will gain presence, and the presence information will become much more granular," said Mahowald.

Unfortunately, though, none of this will happen in the near future.Another VoIP Scenario?

"Presence will happen application by application," he said, "but it will be a silo approach. You will have presence with IM, with voice, and with collaborative applications, but they won't initially be all tied together."

Some of the verticals where presence is taking off bear this assessment out.

"Support call centers, where you have an 800 number for inbound calls, are ripe for presence," Antepo's Seguineau said. "It's a cost center. People in there do not create revenue."

He noted that in many support situations there is a lot of wasted time. With a software product, for instance, if you call the technician and you have to reboot your computer, that technician will typically wait on the line serving you with nothing else to do.

With a presence-enabled system in place, those techs could be answering IM messages of a less critical nature, boosting productivity. However, this would be a specific call-center application, which is presence enabled. In the near term, it wouldn't extend to things like mobile voice and traditional email.

"The workforce composed of knowledge workers has not been optimized in the way that, say, the manufacturing workforce has," Seguineau said.

He contends that knowledge workers spend as much as 15% of their time searching for unavailable colleagues or content. They wait for documents to be signed off on, they get mired in voicemail and the sending of repetitious emails, or they go looking for content that someone else has tied up.

"To use a computer term, this is latency in the business process," he said. "The goal with presence is to create a real-time infrastructure."

Jabber's Hildebrand refers to this concept as "extended presence," noting that presence could influence the very way future applications are structured.

"We're creating forms-based services," he said. "These applications are semi-structured in how they operate, so if I need someone to sign off on a purchase order, presence is a key feature in that form."

The application itself would show users who is available to sign off on a key document and it would be able to prioritize that process in the other person's workflow, interrupting a low-priority phone call, for instance.

In the end, the business case for presence centers on efficiency, but until a coherent, standards-based, cross-platform approach comes along CIOs should be cautious when committing to presence-enabled applications.

Interoperability, legacy support, and security are all concerns, and, today, the solutions to those problems vary from vendor to vendor and are not always compatible.