A key concept that you'll run across again and again in discussions of unified communications is presence. Most users -- and even many IT pros -- have only a vague idea of what it means.
Is presence just another buzzword used to sell UC products, or is it an important factor in making the most of integrated communications applications? Let's take a look at how it works and discuss how it can help users take advantage of new technology more effectively.
Presence: More than just being there
When used in the context of communication applications and devices, presence refers to the ability to ascertain the status of your contacts at a given time. In other words, you can tell at a glance whether someone you want to call is available and, in some cases, the reason for and extent of unavailability.
For example, common presence indicators include Online (available for communications), Busy (currently engaged in other communications or activities), Away (not at the desk or in the office, otherwise unavailable), and Do Not Disturb (in but not available). Some options are more specific, such as Be Right Back or Out to Lunch, giving others an idea of how long you'll be unavailable. Your presence indicator may also tell others whether you have a Webcam for video calling/conferencing.
Presence status indicators first became popular with instant messaging clients. With most IM clients, you can set your status, including making yourself appear to be offline when you're actually online. You may also be able to enter a custom status message, such as "Be back at 3 P.M." or "Gone to doctor's appointment."
You may be able to configure the software to change your status automatically. For example, you can configure Windows Live Messenger to set your status to Away if you're inactive for a specified period of time or to automatically show you as Busy if you're running a full-screen program or presentation.
Beyond instant messaging
The presence concept has moved beyond IM and chat programs. Unified communications ties together different modes of communication such as IM, e-mail, and voice and video calls. With this type of integration, a user's status can help determine how to handle calls and messages. For example, if you've set your status to Busy, calls might go directly to voice mail, whereas if your status is Out of Office, the system could redirect those office calls to your cell phone or home phone.
In a truly integrated system, you could assign priority ratings to your contacts or even to particular subject lines. Then, for example, if you received an e-mail message with a high priority but were away from the computer, the system could ring your cell phone and notify you of the message -- or even read the message to you.
The Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is becoming the standard for VoIP telephony. Extensions to SIP can use "presence agent" software to store information about users' status to make it available for other users.
You can even subscribe to a particular user's status information and receive automatic notification when that user's status changes (e.g., when the user comes online, goes out to lunch, etc.). The user still has control over his or her own presence information and can distribute that information not just from a computer but also from a PDA or cell phone.
Presence and privacy
The ability of others to know when we are and aren't available inevitably brings up privacy issues. We may want some people to have this information but don't necessarily want everyone to be able to monitor when we're online or offline.
To address this, software makers build features into their programs that allow you to decide how you want your presence status displayed. You can select certain people whom you want to block from viewing your status, or you can select only certain people who will be able to see your status and block everyone else from viewing it.
This actually gives us more privacy than we would have without presence. In the "old days" when there were no presence indicators, if we were expecting a call, we would have to remain available to everyone so as not to miss that call. That meant someone we didn't want to communicate with could call. Now we can represent ourselves as unavailable to all but the person whose call we're expecting.
Problems with presence
If presence indicators don't actually pose a threat to privacy and, if properly used, give us more of it, what problems present obstacles to the adoption of presence technology? Perhaps the biggest problem is that currently, the user has to manually set his or her status indication.
As we discussed, some programs may have limited ability to detect what you're doing and change your status automatically, but in most cases you have to remember to change it yourself. So if you go off to lunch and leave your status set to Online, people will be trying in vain to reach you while you're gone. And if you do remember to indicate that you're away but then forget to change it when you get back, others will think you aren't available when you are.
As systems become more automated, the usefulness of presence information will grow. For example, there's already software available for Windows Mobile phones that will check your calendar and automatically turn your phone off or set it to vibrate during the time that you have blocked out to be in a meeting. After the scheduled end of the meeting, the software turns the phone's ringer back on. You could also use this type of technology to change your presence indicator status based on your calendar information.
Presence information can help business users communicate more efficiently by making calls or sending messages at a time when they know the recipient is available to receive them and by notifying users when another user's status changes so they don't have to play telephone tag or guessing games to try to get in touch. As communication modes become more unified and various communications devices become more integrated, presence information can become available across different platforms and in a more automated way to make it more accurate, transparent, and convenient for users.
Although "presence" may seem like just another industry buzzword, it has the potential to change the way we communicate in significant ways. Look for more and more products to feature "presence" as an integral part of the package, and look for vendors to gather, distribute, and use presence information in increasingly sophisticated ways.
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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.