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The familiar buddy list will soon take on a new personality, as presence technology begins gracing corporate instant messaging and other communication tools.

A SIMPLE presence
Ask this of presence server vendors

The promise of presence is that users can reach others instantly regardless of location of either party, over a variety of media, including chat, video and wireless or traditional voice. Also possible will be technologies such as spontaneous audio- and videoconferences.

"For us, the technology has become a valuable tool, not just for instant messaging but for things like application sharing and whiteboard functionality," says Nicole Picciotta, CIO at Shaw Pittman, a Washington, D.C., law firm that uses IBM Lotus' Sametime collaboration tools injected with presence.

Many industry watchers predict that once presence technology breaks free of its instant-messaging confines and moves further into IP telephony and other areas, it could become an even more powerful antidote to corporate communication hindrances.

Adding presence need not alter corporate networks dramatically. You'll have to address the bandwidth needed to support multimedia.  You'll also need to deploy some type of server software, usually a messaging/presence server that provides the messaging relay, security and storage for clients.

You have a choice of stand-alone presence software from companies including Bantu, Dynamicsoft, FaceTime Communications, NotePage and Vayusphere. Meanwhile, some larger vendors are bundling these capabilities with collaboration tools. Examples of the latter include IBM Lotus with its Sametime software and Microsoft in .Net Server, industry watchers say.

"The breadth of possibilities here are what makes this pretty exciting. The technology that is now used in applications offered by AOL or Yahoo are only the tip of the iceberg," says Jonathan Rosenberg, chief scientist at Dynamicsoft and co-author of the IETF's Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) standard.

A SIMPLE presence

SIP, a signaling standard for setting up and managing communications sessions between different media, is one of two key protocols for presence. The other is SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE), now progressing as a uniform way to add presence to those capabilities (but not yet a formal IETF standard). The growing support for  these protocols is among the indicators that next-generation instant messaging/presence soon will take off, say Rosenberg and others. 

One example is AOL's willingness to use SIMPLE for interfacing its mammoth instant messaging service offering with messaging plays from other vendors. Another is the recent designation of SIP as a call-control standard for 3G wireless networks by major wireless standards bodies including the Third Generation Partnership Project, Rosenberg says.

More indicative yet is Microsoft's decision to bundle SIP support in its Windows XP operating system to enable PC-to-phone voice capabilities, he says. This will let users build APIs into XP that would inject presence capabilities into voice and video applications.

But instant messaging's thrust into voice communications will not be without its challengers,  says Henry Seinrich, distinguished member of engineering at WorldCom.

"The real barrier is that legacy telecom vendors are resisting this tooth and nail, since it would make their industry base obsolete," Seinrich says. He references reluctance among the PBX and IP PBX or softswitch sectors, which he says are resistant to the idea of presence-based telephony services.

Yet other vendors, including Nortel, have embraced SIP. Nortel has included SIP logic in its Succession line of application servers, which will let service providers extend presence-based IP services to users. Nortel also supports SIP in its Succession products for corporations.

Another challenge is habit and cultural resistance,  users say.

 "There are some audio capabilities built into Sametime, but we've not really moved away from everyday phone calls," Shaw Pittman's Picciotta says.

For Boston public relations firm Porter Novelli, the wholesale swapping of phones for instant messaging has so far come only in extreme circumstances. "When Sept. 11 struck, we benefited from the fact that we had been deploying [instant messaging] and awareness-based tools because of our need to stay fluid in terms of location and to reach our client base," says Bob Elloyan, director of enterprise technology.

Several months ago Porter Novelli started a more formal campaign to include its clients in the use of presence-infused collaboration tools. Using Sametime, which supports SIP and SIMPLE, the firm has included clients in online collaborative workspaces and calendar-sharing exercises to increase the responsiveness and availability of public relations representatives. Making those account members available in real time is the next step, Elloyan says.

The step beyond that would be to harness this efficiency to business objectives a move that will likely serve to further distance presence from its instant-messaging roots, most agree.

Users such as Porter Novelli are interested in how presence might hold the ultimate promise: competitive advantage. "Never mind that employees have awareness capabilities," Elloyan says. "Our clients need to know where their account team is and have instant access."

Jones is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. She can be reached at

Related links:

IETF's SIMPLE working group

Third Generation Partnership Project

Osterman Research Survey on Instant Messaging

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