Microsoft: There's more to presence than whether someone is online or not

Microsoft: There's more to presence than whether someone is online or not

Summary: If there's one application that just about every computer user in the world (and now, many handset users) makes use of, it's instant messenging.


Download this PodcastIf there's one application that just about every computer user in the world (and now, many handset users) makes use of, it's instant messenging.  By Microsoft's estimates, there are over a quarter of a billion people in the world engaging in some form of instant messaging today and the fact that a real time communications application like IM has gotten that big without experiencing any really serious growing pains is not just a testimony to its scalability, but to our need to have not just information at our fingertips, but people as well.

One benefit of instant messenging that many people rely on is something called presence.  With today's instant messenging clients, we can glean certain information about our what our contacts are up to at any given moment.  Are they online, or present? Is their system idle (indicating that they're away from their desk)? If so, are they still present on the instant messenging network, but just via a mobile handset? In addition to our contact's IM aliases -- aka "screen names" -- what are their real names and phone numbers? Not only that, but today's free IM clients from Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL don't seem to ever be resting on their laurels.  Already, we can initiate VoIP phone calls, video conferences and whiteboard conferences with multiple people simultaneously and more functionality (for example photo sharing) is always on the way. 

In the meantime, even though many businesspeople rely on the public forms of IM, vendors like IBM and Microsoft are trying to convince businesses that their real-time collaboration solutions -- solutions that typically require the installation of special behind-the-firewall infrastructure -- make it plainly evident that there's so much more to presence than what the public networks have to offer.  The result, these vendors argue, is that businesses can be more efficient at everything thing they do and somehow, that could contribute to the bottom line (although that actual hard dollar contribution is hard to quantify). 

Earlier today, I gave Microsoft's group product manager for real-time collaboration Ed Simnett the opportunity to make his case for why organizations that rely on public messaging clouds should be thinking about taking the application in house by using products like Microsoft's Live Communications Server (LCS) and the company's very recently released Office Communicator 2005: the Windows-based client that users would use to not only connect to an LCS server, but also reveal many more details (including calendar data and whether their on the phone or not) about other people who are connected to the "private cloud" as well as to communicate with external users who still operate in one of the major public clouds such as AOL Instant Messenger or Yahoo IM (yes, Microsoft's client integrates other IM clients).  In a quick and dirty test, Simnett and I freely IMed each other while he was on the Microsoft client and I was on AOL, although it did take a while before his original request to "intrude" on my buddy list was received.

As you can hear from the interview (available as an MP3 that can be downloaded or, if you’re already subscribed to ZDNet’s IT Matters series of audio podcasts, it will show up on your system or MP3 player automatically. See ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in), there are other reasons to put some sort of real-time collaboration infrastructure in place.  For example, organizations such as ones in the healthcare of financial industries -- which must keep a virtual paper trail or ensure that all communications are encrypted (with no chance for circumvention) -- can use a centralized infrastructure like LCS to handle such background tasks. 

Another scenario is where the private cloud is extended to include business partners or other relevant constituencies.  If you have to contact someone who's outside of your organization but in your supply chain, you might be able to gather rich presence information on them as well, provided they're running the same vendor's real-time infrastructure you are.  If they're not, some bare-bones integration between dissimilar real-time collaboration infrastructures is possible through protocols like SIP and Simple, but some of the  rich presence data may be lost.  During the interview, Simnett talks about how this barrier to integration will be overcome at some point in the future through the use of Web services and XML documents that essentially allow real-time collaboration systems to export their presence data.  Toward the end of the interview, Simnett talks about the recently released Web client for LCS as well as one that will ship near year's end so that that connected Windows Mobile devices such as PocketPCs can also tap into a Microsoft-based "presence backbone."

Topic: Social Enterprise

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  • instant messaging has been reported to lower productivity

    How can you think with all that crap going on? It seems like the most important event anymore is communicating, but all this discussion has not lifted us up as a society, in fact quite the opposite. Quiet reflection is good for the soul, considered words carry much more weight, instant messagers are neurotic.
    • I agree. Reflection, contemplation, and...

      ...measured responses are preferred. All this off-the-cuff banter and breathless, hyperkinetic babble is...noise.
    • Another solution looking for a problem

      Microsoft have a new (lucrative) IM product to sell and their PR team must now convince the computing world that they have a need for it. As a contractor I've worked in many enviroments and since IM came into vouge, in most of them, it has been banned. In those enviroments I've worked in where it was allowed, the reasons for it's banning in other places were very quickly evident - endless productivity lost in banal chatter, gossip, joke and silly image sharing, link sharing ... and when some actual work needs to be done, some information is urgently required, what do these same people do? They pick up the phone, send an email or even, more rarely, make a personal visit to the desk or office of the source. Microsoft stand to profit hugely from all this lost production, so from a marketing point of view it certainly is a winner for them, if they can get it accepted wholesale.
    • IM puts others in control of your time

      David's estimate that nearly every computer user uses IM is way off. I can look at the list of nearly 250 people (friends, family, colleagues) that I know and can easily see that no more than 50% use IM at all (and I work in the computer industry).

      More to the point, many of the folks who have grabbed onto the idea of "presence" and wanting to have instant communications have not learned a lesson that the more you make yourself available, the more people will ask for your time. There is a physical limit to this, so at one point they will have to move back to the quality vs. quantity, at which point the IM network will be less valuable.

      Instant is not always better, and in fact can many times make things worse in business. I don't believe that rapid, instant, any-time communication will be a part of future business. Yes, collaboration at a set time and schedule will be big (especially using an IM-type infrastructure), but IM as it exists today to banter back and forth will end once people mature a bit and get past the need to be wanted.
      Paul C.
  • Purpose vs Babble

    In the business place, communication should have a purpose, not just pointless babble. The problem is not with the technology (or the concept) but with the people using it. I've seen IM used with good effect, but the majority of the time, it is useless blather and pointless conversation. Not only a time waster, but a distraction.

    IM tools today are nothing more than the PC equivalent of what cell phones have become: an annoyance, not value adding.
    • Just like cell phones.

      What do people find to talk about that frequently. My conversation is of course especially interesting, but even I would have difficulty communicating more frequently.

      IM and cellphones should be more like well arranged meetings. A specific agenda with purpose, ending promptly when the agenda is completed, and no chairs in the room.
      Anton Philidor
  • LCS 2005

    LCS 2005 is not worth the time they spent on it. Microsoft doesn't even use it the way their white paper details how to it should be installed. The white paper states that it would be best to use a server as an LCS proxy in the DMZ, however, we could never get this to work. When talking with MS support, and someone in the LCS development group, they knew that it doesn't work yet but failed to note that in the white paper. Needless to say, this product is not ready yet for the features that are talked about in this article.
  • IM isn't the point

    For those of you who are focused on the value of Instant Messenging, I think you're missing the point. The instant messenging infrastructure has morphed into what can best be described as a presence backbone. The notion of a person's current state of presence is not unlike the notion of the current state of a given software object. Depending on the state of a software object, both people and other software will respond accordingly. Stateful objects are far more efficient in just about any context than are static ones. Decisions -- automated or manual -- can be made much faster which draws businesses closer to the idea of the real time enterprise. This isn't about knowing when I can instant messenge you. It's about wrapping you virtual identity with state so that people and software can respond to that state in a variety of contexts (not just IM) that makes companies and people more efficient at what they do.
    • State works well for objects, but not people

      I still don't buy into the "presence" idea being the best thing for people. While it may help make some decisions in a timely fashion, it opens the door to way too many abuses and misled expectations on the fact that my "stateful virtual identity" should be responding to a request that may be deemed important by the sender, but is not seen that way to me.

      The set of business rules to handle such presence in order for us to keep our own sanity would be too cumbersome to manage on a minute-by-minute basis, to the point where the network of decision making will only be as good as the weakest link.

      Those of us who have learned how to trade quantity for quality of contacts, whether they are from machines or people, will watch others as they drown in a sea of communications that will envelope them.
      Paul C.