The Future Of Presence - InformationWeek

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Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek

The Future Of Presence

Many managers are concerned that presence is a productivity drain, not a productivity boost. This goes for line-of- business managers as well as IT managers? and it's the line-of-business managers who need to buy in for this to really work. Standardization and cultural changes are needed before presence really takes off. It's just a questions of when this shift will occur.Presence seems to be everywhere these days. Once considered merely an underlying technology to instant messaging (IM), presence'the ability to see, in real time, where someone is, how he or she prefers to be reached, and even what he or she is doing?is becoming its own killer app, one that Nemertes Research predicts will go well beyond instant messaging and deep into the enterprise. IM is just one of many applications that will leverage presence in the future.

Presence, of course, has always been a part of how we work; most of us regularly engage people in real time, whether in person or by telephone. The telephone's "busy signal" is, after all, an unsophisticated presence indicator.

These days, 87 percent of American employees work away from headquarters, whether in remote offices, on the road or from home, according to "Maximizing your WAN: Bandwidth Trends and Benchmarks," a new research report from Nemertes Research LLC. That means that for most of us, the old ways of doing business are no longer relevant: We can't wander down the hall and pop into a co-worker's office for a chat, or congregate around the water cooler for an impromptu meeting. We can't ask the person in the next cubicle where a given colleague is, or quickly update documents with the boss right before a hastily-called review.

Enter presence technology, which mimics what it's like for employees to work in the same place and at the same time. IM is the first application to take advantage of the technology; by allowing people to see when their IM "buddies" are online, presence helps them text message with each other in near-real time. Standard "away messages" such as "on the phone" or "idle" let users know when their buddies are unavailable.

But IM is still a rudimentary user of presence information. More advanced examples are realtime communications portals, the term Nemertes uses to describe PC-based softphone applications that leverage both presence and voice over IP (VOIP) technology to do more than voice communications. They're coming in droves from networking and telephony vendors such as 3Com, Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, Siemens and Sphere. These products let users see who's available when, and how they prefer to be reached?whether by telephone (and at which number) or by instant message or e-mail.

Meanwhile, software vendors?including Microsoft and dozens of its independent software vendor (ISV) partners, as well as its competitors such as Oracle and IBM Lotus?envision a world in which presence is embedded in every user's applications, including Office (Microsoft's strong suit) and back-end systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and supply chain software (where Oracle claims to have the advantage).

Under the software vendors' model, the goal is to embed presence throughout an organization, and within a company's enterprise applications. That way, if an employee is working in, say, SAP, and he needs to ask someone a question, he can see not only who's online but also who else is working in SAP at that moment?letting him ask his question immediately, and in the context of what they're both doing. In another example, an employee reading a white paper written by a coworker could simply right-click on the author's name, see whether he or she is available and how (by phone, email or IM) and instantly get in touch to ask a question or discuss a point.

Still, while many companies are intrigued by the idea of embedding presence in enterprise applications, most are 1-3 years away from actually doing that, as shown in Figure 1. What's more, 43 percent of companies that participated in Nemertes' recent benchmark, "Getting a Grip on Collaboration," said they have no plans for embedding presence throughout the enterprise.

Asked what's keeping them from implementing presence more quickly, most companies said they just can't measure the return on investment (ROI)?and they'll need to do so in order to convince the budget keepers to agree to changing the way the company and its employees work. Standards, privacy and security are also concerns.

Standards And Interoperability

Part of the holdup is the technology. Only recently has Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and its IM counterpart, SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) garnered the support of IBM, Microsoft and the leading telephony vendors. Even with this vote of confidence, many vendors say they need to modify the standards with their own proprietary extensions, especially when it comes to security. That means almost everyone today is really offering a proprietary "flavor" of SIP and SIMPLE.

This puts interoperability and integration on the back burner, and encourages the proponents of the competing IM standard, XMPP, an XMLbased, extensible open-source option that drives the Jabber IM client. While none of the IT executives who participated in our Collaboration benchmark explicitly mentioned SIP or SIMPLE when talking about presence, it should come as no surprise that those who embrace open-source software are passionate about XMPP and Jabber.

"We chose Jabber because XMPP is better," said the IT manager in charge of collaboration at a multi-billion-dollar financial services firm. "Whatever we use needs to fit into the portal. Jabber makes it very easy to do integration, plus it's inexpensive." This executive told us his biggest concern is flexibility. The company works with scores of partners, each using its own IM client, and he doesn't want to support multiple clients on his end in order to communicate with them. Instead, he says, it's easier to use Jabber to hook into the other IM applications as needed. "[Jabber] is the only [IM client] that lets me connect to all the others," he said.

Still, his bosses aren't convinced that opensource is the way to go. "We've run tests to show Jabber integration is possible, and then we shut it down," he said, with annoyance. His experience of resistance from upper management is common? most of the decision-makers we speak to are using products that support SIP and SIMPLE, and they're not inclined to switch.

Although Oracle supports XMPP, Nemertes believes SIP and SIMPLE have enough support from other major vendors and enterprise decision makers to eventually make them the winning standards throughout the IM world. Moreover, we think they will continue to drive development in other areas, including presence within softphones and other IP telephony technology, applicationembedded presence, and the like.

Whichever standards eventually win, the need for open standards is clear. Email vendors and cell phone carriers struggled with this issue, too, but they eventually came around. The question for presence and real-time communications standards is how quickly they can be stabilized and truly standardized. We think that's 3-5 years away, based on our conversations with enterprise customers and vendors.

Even Microsoft, which has bet its own development and the development efforts of its partners and ISVs on SIP and SIMPLE, is cautious. "We are firm believers in interoperability, and we do believe it will happen around SIP and SIMPLE," said Dennis Karlinksy, lead product manager in Microsoft's Real-Time Collaboration business unit. "But they still need work."

It's The Culture, Stupid...

In the meantime, companies that want to make more use of presence need to tackle an even bigger obstacle: cultural resistance. Many IT executives worry that presence, especially when used enterprise-wide, will create more problems than it will solve.

Many of the managers we speak with about presence are concerned that it's a productivity drain, not a productivity boost. This goes for line-of- business managers as well as IT managers? and it's the line-of-business managers who need to buy in for this to really work. Their concerns tend to revolve around IM, because it can be intrusive and at times downright invasive. Although certain professionals clearly benefit from IM'traders who use it to ensure they get the best price, sales people who back-channel during prospect calls? the rest of the knowledge-worker population has a harder time substantiating their benefits.

Still, there's no doubt that instant messaging is here to stay. Nemertes' research shows that 90 percent of companies report some form of IM is used within their organizations, mostly the public services from AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo. But embedded presence is years off?and it comes with even more fundamental changes in the way people work, and therefore, more cultural challenges to overcome.

The idea that drives presence'that all your coworkers, and eventually even partners, suppliers and customers, can see not only where you are but, theoretically, what you're doing?is tough for many Americans to swallow. It's hard enough for most of us to accept that our cell phones should be attached to our hips almost 24/7. (Indeed, people still complain about this phenomenon so often, one could argue we haven't really accepted it at all.) Take that a step further: People can not only reach you whenever they need you, wherever you are, but they can also "see" exactly what you're doing?and people start to get nervous.

And yet, the fact that your manager and coworkers know what you're doing while you're on the job is hardly new. We believe that the biggest resistance to presence and IM is actually the result of another recent change, one also enabled by technology, and one that's also helping drive the need for presence capabilities: The remote and independent worker. As employees have moved away from headquarters, they've often moved away from prying eyes, and many of them like it that way. They may not be so willing to go back to the main office, or to adopt the virtual equivalent.

Finally, there is the issue of controlling who knows what about whom. While it may be perfectly reasonable for a manager to expect to know the whereabouts of his or her direct reports at all times during the official work day (and, in wellrun organizations, for the reverse to be true as well), it isn't necessarily OK for that knowledge to extend to off-duty hours. More troubling to many IT executives and line-of-business managers is the notion that the rank-and-file might know the whereabouts and activities of the CEO.

Still, this isn't really much of a change from the status quo. Presumably, employees who know enough not to bother their CEOs with email, phone calls and personal visits today will realize they shouldn't do so on IM.

In all cases, we believe the answer is education and good management: Education for the end users, who will need to learn not just to accept a new way of doing business (or in some sense, reverting to the old way), but the new rules that surround it. For instance, managing presence? that is, making sure your availability status is accurate and current?is not difficult, but even when all they're using is IM, people seem to have a tough time staying on top of it. And managers need to respect their employees' time and privacy.

Ultimately, however, the change may come down to the generations. As more of today's twenty- somethings enter the workplace and climb to management and corporate ranks, presence will be increasingly accepted. These are the kids who grew up managing multiple chat windows and racking up the minutes on their pagers and cell phones'they're used to knowing where everyone is and what they're doing, all the time.

Presence And IP Telephony

Some of the most avid presence proponents are the VOIP networking vendors, including Avaya, 3Com, Nortel and Siemens. These and other VOIP suppliers have developed applications software to leverage IP networks and offer presence, conferencing and integrated voice and data for total communications convergence.

Oracle, too, is using this model in its Collaboration Suite. Oracle works with Intel and Cisco to integrate audio and voice mail into the Suite, which also includes email, calendaring, Web conferencing and a document management system called Oracle Files.

Typically, these applications are PC-based and designed to work with both IP and analog or digital phones. Picture a window that shows all your corporate contacts, and then indicates whether they're available by phone, IM and even e-mail via an icon that may, say, change from green to red depending on availability. Most offer click-to-talk, so users can make a phone call right from their PC (and have it ring to the PC, a separate IP phone or an analog/digital or cell phone). The applications also provide detailed management to both the enduser and administrator levels.

People can get very specific about who can reach them, as well as how and when. For instance, a user may opt to have the system send his manager directly to his cell phone after hours, but send all other callers to voice mail. Some systems have built-in audio conferencing, multi-party chat and even Web conferencing capabilities.

For example, Siemens' OpenScape product is built on Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 and enhances Microsoft email and Windows Messenger, as well as voice and wireless communications. Nortel's Multimedia Communications Server 5100 delivers collaborative applications? including presence, messaging and video services? on an open platform that lets partners and other vendors hook into the product using industry- standard protocols, including SIP and H.323.

Presence seems more likely to enter the enterprise via these communications-based products, rather than alongside application software, particularly given the growing IP telephony trend. The VOIP vendors are pressing their advantage by providing more robust find me/follow me capabilities, and better voice/data communications integration (so that, for example, a caller who's available by IM might get a text message, rather than a voice mail, from the person he's trying to reach).

Applications-Based Presence

Meanwhile, software vendors are developing and promoting applications-based presence'that is, leveraging presence throughout an enterprise at the application level, so users can see not just who's available and by what mode of communication, but which application(s) they're using.

That's Microsoft's eventual goal for its Live Communications Server. Today LCS allows IT managers to embed rudimentary presence functions in Outlook and most Office applications: Users must right-click on a name within an Office document to see where and how to reach that person, although they can't immediately click to call or determine if other users are working in the same Office applications as they are. To enable the features, companies must have the latest versions of Windows Server, Active Directory, Office and Exchange. In the next release of LCS (codenamed Vienna and due at the end of 2004), Microsoft plans to add Web access, so companies can let employees, partners or customers into their presence-driven systems from outside the firewall, even if they don't have access through a VPN.

We believe Microsoft is well positioned to help drive the applications-presence market. It already has more than 50 ISVs including leading IM integrators Akonix, FaceTime and IM Logic. One partner, Parlano Inc., is merging presence and collaboration into project "channels" that allow participants to chat in discussion threads, share Office documents and work on them in real time, all built on Parlano's own presence server or on LCS. Another partner, Descartes, is working to embed presence in its supply chain applications, so that, for example, a shipping company can see which drivers are available when and plan accordingly.


When it comes to the widespread adoption of enterprise presence, it's not so much a question of "if," but "when." The barriers are partly related to technology: Knowing everyone's whereabouts and availability within your company is valuable; knowing the whereabouts and availability of everyone you do business with, more so. But corporate culture?indeed, the very way American knowledge workers do what they do, day in and day out?will have to change if the full benefits of presence and real-time collaboration are to be realized.

Melanie Turek is principal research analyst and senior partner at Nemertes Research LLC, a leading research firm that provides in-depth analysis of the business value of emerging technologies.

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