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

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."