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12/12/2007
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Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
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Presence Interoperability: UC's Holy Grail

When you talk to the leading unified communications vendors these days, you hear a lot about integration and interoperability. But mostly what they’re talking about is integration—allowing a voice product from one manufacturer work with a data product from another, and vice-versa. That’s important, especially as companies look to deploy best-of-breed UC environments that allow them to leverage their existing IT investments and continue to use the software they like best for specific functions and processes. But it doesn’t address one of the biggest challenges this market will face over the next several years: presence interoperability.

Today, companies that want to expose telephony and PC-based presence in a single application can do so, but only to their own users. There is no way for them to expose telephony presence from one vendor to another (say, a Cisco user to an Avaya user), and although they can use federation agreements between the leading consumer IM services and Microsoft and IBM to expose presence from, say, AOL to OCS, they need to do actual back-end work to federate across organizations on a enterprise IM system—and even then, it has to be the same EIM system (OCS to OCS, yes; OCS to Sametime, no go).

For a communications application, that would seem to have limited value. I mean, if UC is so great, shouldn’t I be able to leverage those benefits across all my communications and collaboration sessions? Who says my interactions with co-workers are more important that my interactions with partners, or even with customers, who are, after all, king?

Few would argue that point. (Although some will, I know—the holdouts who still believe that real-time communications must be controlled or all productivity hell will break loose. These are the same people who didn’t exchange real, live receptionists for voicemail until the late nineties.) The problem is two-fold: the technology, and the business.

On the business side, blame the vendors who worry that freely exposing presence information will make it impossible to lock users into their UC products. Today, presence is really the part of UC that’s monetized; the rest is either skin (the UC client interface) or commoditized functionality (audio and Web conferencing). Open up presence to all, and which product to deploy becomes much more a matter of end-user choice. (I prefer Outlook, you prefer Lotus, we can talk to each other so we don’t need to pay for both.)

On the technology side, blame e-mail. No one wants to treat presence information the way we do e-mail. E-mail’s openness has its merits, of course (see above), but the resulting viruses and spam have rendered the technology unworkable for many users. Put everyone’s presence status—and the ability to ping them with an IM, or invite the to attend an audio, video or Web conference call on the fly—and the potential security and productivity risks are daunting.

So what to do? On the business side, the vendors will have to realize that playing together will ultimately be better for the market—and their position in it—than playing apart. This is not a new problem; we saw it in the e-mail world, and more recently in the cellular one.

The technology problem is more painful, and will require more thought. But one option is to create clearinghouses that collect, aggregate, filter, store and disperse public and private presence information. A handful of vendors are positioned to do this, and they don’t all come from the same industry today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on who should be looking at this opportunity—as well as other ways to solve the presence problem.

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