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Presence applications poised for takeoff

Sep 06, 20047 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsIBMMessaging Apps

Before presence explodes on the scene, it faces myriad challenges, including corporate buy-in to its potential and power, management tools to control it and, most importantly, the development of interoperability standards, the same liberator that unshackled e-mail nearly a decade ago.

There is a killer on the loose under the covers of instant messaging, and no, it isn’t malicious; it’s a killer application that has the potential to revolutionize the way companies collaborate and communicate.

The killer app is presence. IM users see evidence of it every day in their buddy lists as a little icon that shows someone is online. But down the road, experts say, presence will separate itself from IM and evolve into a network service tapped by applications and corporate communication services, including telephony.

“In the future, presence will be the underlying [network] capability, and IM will just be one of the apps that takes advantage of that,” says Melanie Turek, an analyst with Nemertes Research. “Presence is the killer app.”

Why? Because presence ultimately is seen as a real-time communications, messaging and routing infrastructure that not only supports collaborative applications for user-to-user interaction, but also supports communication between applications and users. It also supports application-to-application integration, whereby presence infrastructure is used to announce which applications are up, what their functions are and what types of protocols they accept.

“In the end, presence is metadata,” says Mike Gotta, an analyst with Meta Group. “It can contain information about someone or something.”

But before presence explodes on the scene, it faces myriad challenges, including corporate buy-in to its potential and power, management tools to control it and, most importantly, the development of interoperability standards, the same liberator that unshackled e-mail nearly a decade ago.

Early adopters

The challenges are many, but early adopters already see the potential in doing the heavy lifting.

“In the next six to eight months we want to have something in place for a one-stop shop to get the right information to the right people at the right time,” says Heidi Rebottaro, project manager for application development for Nektar Therapeutics in San Carlos, Calif. The company develops methods for administering drugs such as an inhalation technology used with a new dry form of insulin.

Rebottaro is using IBM Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing server, which supports presence capabilities within Nektar’s portal of collaborative applications and online training courses. “We use presence to find instructors, authors of documents and in chat rooms for team members,” Rebottaro says.

But she has thoughts of a presence-based publish-and-subscribe channel that would let applications instantly send new information to end users or to support workflow applications that could seek out available managers to approve purchase orders.

“The infrastructure for presence and awareness is in place,” Rebottaro says. “We just need to add that top layer of applications. We just need to find the time to do it.”

Vendors are finding time for presence, and its inclusion in popular applications could light a fire.

IBM has integrated presence into Lotus Notes, which has more than 100 million users, and Microsoft has added it to Office, which sits on 90% of corporate desktops, and SharePoint Portal Server using Live Communications Server (LCS) as the back-end infrastructure. Microsoft recently signed a deal with AOL and Yahoo to connect LCS users to public IM networks, a precursor to the connectivity interoperability standards promise.

“It’s fair to say that presence is a relatively nascent technology, but we see the concept eventually expanding beyond people to servers and applications,” says Ken Bisconti, IBM’s vice president of messaging products.

Jabber, Inc., which develops real-time communication server platforms for developing IM and presence-enabled applications, is fashioning its XCP platform into an application server of sorts not only for presence, but also for messaging, routing and XML-application development. In September, it will release a publish-and-subscribe technology called Information Broker for pushing content out to users.

IM Logic’s IM Linkage includes a robot, or “bot” feature that can find users, pull them into a Web conference, provide a chat room pre-loaded with key data and dial phone numbers for voice support. Siemens’ HiPath OpenScape portal uses presence based on Microsoft’s LCS to support conferencing, workflows and other communication to mobile and fixed phones, e-mail and other collaborative applications. WiredRed’s e/POP is already the backbone for business communications provider Mitel’s Your Assistant service, which marries presence information from PCs with presence from VoIP and traditional phone service. 

Integration lesson

A well-designed presence system should include a specific set of features and functions when integrated with collaborative or communication applications, according to consulting firm Collaborative Strategies.
Should integrate with corporate directories.
Can send pop-up messages to a group or an entire organization.
Can limit or grant access and to change status.
Can extend system with custom status designators.
Controls to disable user right to manually change status.
Automatic posting of “idle/away” status and “auto reply” messages.
Should integrate with corporate directories.
Can detect status of phones (on/off hook) or mobile devices.
Can detect agents, avatars or aliases. has deployed an integrated information client on some of its desktops with Nortel’s Multimedia Communications Server 5100 on the back end, which integrates voice, data and video services.

Presence information lets users change their location, say from home to the office, and have phone calls follow them. Videoconferencing lets users find colleagues online and convene real-time meetings. The software lets users specify who can see them online and who can’t.


One of the biggest challenges to adoption has been cultural, according to Aaron Branham, vice president of global operations and networking for

“As presence follows you it makes you available or visible wherever you are,” he says. “A lot of people stopped using it after a while.”

It’s part of a security challenge called presence management.

“Presence has to tie into identity management to cascade the information to applications and to broker and syndicate presence data for use outside the organization,” Meta’s Gotta says.

Another hot button is standards. Today, Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is an IETF-approved standard accepted by Microsoft, IBM, Cisco and about 100 telephony vendors for its flexibility in setting up sessions, of which IM is just one example. But debate rages over Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), another IETF standard that draws support from many open source advocates, and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE), which is working its way through the IETF but enjoys the same backing as SIP.

“We are very much committed to supporting SIP/SIMPLE, and we will not end up supporting XMPP natively. But that does not close the door on gateways, although one is not planned now,” says Dennis Karlinsky, lead product manager for Microsoft’s LCS.

XMPP backers, including Bell South, which uses it within a real-time digital call-center application, say the XML-based data-transport protocol is more flexible and extensible, and supports features for IM and presence that SIMPLE lacks, such as group chat and contact lists.

“Presence, message routing, authentication. The fact that XMPP is XML means you can put in [those kinds of] extensions,” says Joe Hildebrand, chief architect for Jabber, Inc. , who predicts real-time platforms will become much like application server platforms of today.

The challenge to that, of course, is user acceptance, which has been growing steadily.

A recent Osterman Research study shows 44% of companies use IM with business applications, up from 21% just three years ago. Furthermore, 34% of users have standardized on an internally run IM platform, up from 24% just two years ago.

Some say the numbers suggest that presence is well on its way to being that killer app.

“Just like in the late ’90s when the No.1 thing on IT agendas was to Web-enable applications, I think the story of the next decade will be adding presence to applications,” says Francis deSouza, president of IMLogic. “Every application can be made smarter and more efficient with presence.”