By themselves, today's collaboration technologies, such as instant messaging and audio, video and Web conferencing, help make workers more productive. But when combined with presence -- information about where users are, what applications or devices they're using and how best to reach them -- those collaboration tools can become part of a virtual workplace in which employees can quickly get information they need and ad hoc groups can set up meetings on the fly.
The result: companies save money, boost productivity and stay agile in a changing world.
It's a great goal; for most organizations though it's still some three to five years away. That's one key finding in a recent Nemertes Research survey. Only 16 percent of the 43 IT executives who responded said they use presence now, another 26 percent plan to do so in the next six to 24 months, but that leaves 42 percent with no presence plans at all.
There are two main reasons why companies are holding back. Many IT executives don't see the justification, in resource terms, for deploying presence; and those that do are still focused on other real-time communications deployments, such as instant messaging and Web conferencing.
That is expected to change over time, but until companies get a handle on IM, conferencing and basic security issues, presence will remain on the back burner for most IT executives.
In the meantime, a war is brewing as vendors come at presence from a variety of angles. Applications vendors such as Microsoft and IBM Lotus view voice as an add-on to their collaboration products, while IP telephony vendors such as Nortel and Siemens see collaboration applications as an add-on to their voice systems.
Microsoft's Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005 is designed to work with public IM services from America Online and Yahoo, and Microsoft's own MSN Messenger. LCS 2005 also enables the integration of IM and presence awareness in other Microsoft applications, notably Office.
An MSN Messenger user will be able to instant-message an AOL user from within the LCS client using Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). However, a user won't be able to instant-message that AOL user from within an Office application, at least not yet.
Although many survey respondents bought licences to LCS and the IM client (often as part of a larger, enterprise licence agreement), most have yet to deploy it.
Those who have installed LCS are still figuring out the right strategy for the future. "We use LCS for now; we have presence in our Office applications," says Alvin Lim, general manager of the Regional Microsoft practice at Asia Datacraft. "It's not yet embedded in back-end systems. It's a great technology, but we're trying to figure out the apps that apply."
Nevertheless, survey results show that Microsoft has the largest user base among participants: 20 percent of companies that have standardized on an enterprise IM system use Microsoft as their vendor, and 79 percent say they use or plan to use LCS for embedded presence.
IBM's newest entry in the real-time communications arena is Lotus Workplace Team Collaboration, which is Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition-based and offers integrated synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, which includes IM, presence awareness, Web conferencing, team spaces and development tools for embedding presence in enterprise applications.
Lotus is developing a SIP infrastructure for reuse across IBM software products. IBM also has defined an interdomain specification for SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions that enables interoperability among SIP-based IM offerings. But IBM today doesn't offer interoperability with other presence and IM vendors or services.
Just 11 percent of companies that participated in the survey use Lotus for IM, and only 7 percent who've embedded presence in other enterprise applications use Lotus to do so.
Presence at work
The value of audio, video and Web conferencing can increase when these services are presence-enabled and/or integrated with a company's IM system. Click-to-meet capabilities let users meet on the fly whenever and wherever they need to. Presence ensures all participants are, in fact, available for the meeting.
Some conferencing products let hosts schedule meetings to start as soon as participants are available, tapping into their online presence, their phone presence and their calendar presence. This can replace hours of coordination time and ensure meetings get done as soon as possible, which saves project time, as well.
"We love being able to jump from IM to audio or Web conferencing. We find that that's a very interesting phenomenon. Multi-party chats can escalate to voice conferencing, and they tend to do that. We're connected via the IP network, so there's no cost," Lim adds.
Meanwhile, many enterprise IM vendors are positioning themselves as presence vendors. Bantu, an enterprise IM product, integrates with WebEx Communications and Microsoft's Office Live Meeting, so users can launch a conference from within a Bantu instant message. They can also call someone simply by clicking on an audio link -- and in both cases presence works to let users know the person or people they need to meet with are available.
All the major IM gateway vendors -- Akonix Systems, FaceTime Communications and IMlogic -- offer presence-integration tools that let IT executives build presence into the applications of their choice.
Digital dashboard of the future
The future of the workplace is changing -- and real-time communications dashboards will have a lot to do with shaping how the desktop of tomorrow looks. Think of these dashboards as soft phones on steroids.
Some traditional networking vendors, including Avaya, Nortel Networks and Siemens, developed software designed to use IP networks and offer presence, conferencing, and integrated voice and data for total communications convergence.
Only 7 percent of companies report using real-time communications dashboards today. But another 40 percent plan to do so in the next two years. And vendors are stepping up to offer products:
- The 3Com Convergence Applications Suite incorporates the 3Com IP Messaging module for unified messaging functionality such as "read-me e-mail" and "find-me/follow-me" services; the 3Com IP Conferencing module for audio conferencing, video conferencing, data conferencing and presence management services; and 3Com's IP telephony products.
- Avaya's Converged Communications Server works with the vendor's IP telephony software, Communication Manager; supports presence; and integrates IM and telephony via a single buddy list; users can click to launch a call from within IM.
Avaya supports six-way meet-me conferencing, and it recently acquired Spectel for audio conferencing (the next release will support click-to-conferencing capabilities). The company's video conferencing telephony desktop solution integrates the vendor's soft phone with the Polycom desktop solution.
- Nortel's Multimedia Communication Server 5100 drives VOIP networks, and delivers multimedia and collaborative applications to the enterprise on an open platform that supports industry-standard protocols, including SIP and H.323. Capabilities include mobility, collaboration, presence, messaging and video services.
Collaborative applications include videoconferencing, audio and video streaming, white-boarding, file exchange and IM. Telephony services include call redirect and call forwarding, conferencing, call hold and waiting, multiple server registration, and real-time call management.
- Siemens' OpenScape lets workers see their colleagues' availability across an IP network and lets users prioritize and control who can reach them, where, and when. One-click access to WebEx Web conferencing makes it easy for people to jump into a meeting as soon as they're all available. OpenScape operates on Windows Server 2003 and enhances Microsoft e-mail and Windows Messenger, and voice and wireless communications. But its open nature lets it integrate with other enterprise applications.
Contact centres lead the way
One area leading the way in the use of real-time applications is in the contact centre. This is happening primarily on three fronts: Web chat between agents and customers; IM use among agents and experts to quickly distribute information and answer questions; and expert routing, which sends calls to the most appropriate available agent.
Presence has the potential to change the way people work - and how they communicate and collaborate with one another. Change will come slowly; the technology isn't as mature as it needs to be. The productivity gains are difficult to measure, and the cultural adjustments won't come easily from end users, but companies that adopt the new tools will be well positioned to support a dispersed workforce and leverage the benefits such an environment brings.
Melanie Turek is a principal research analyst at Nemertes Research