Presence Technology

In today's information economy, digital technologies let us easily communicate with colleagues and customers around the world. E-mail has given us an asynchronous communications medium that helps free us from the strictures of time-zone differences. We can send a message at any time and get a reply at the other person's convenience. But there can be times when we may need a quick answer from, say, any of a dozen people, and it takes a while just to find one of that dozen who is available.

With the growing use of instant messaging (IM) technology, such as America Online Inc.'s AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and Microsoft Corp.'s Messenger services, we now have a better alternative.

If we have those dozen people on our "buddy list," we can tell at a glance if any of their computers are logged onto the network and whether they've been active recently. We can tell if Judy in engineering is open to communications, and we can send her a quick IM to ask a question. Her reply by IM or phone can resolve the problem efficiently.

Although AIM started as a consumer-grade technology, it was quickly adopted by many businesses that saw its advantages in enabling quick communications and providing presence information.

The rapid growth in its use brought competition, notably from Microsoft and Yahoo Inc., which made their own products that interoperated with the AIM servers. However, AOL soon managed to shut them out, and the result for the past several years has been a plurality of competing networks of IM products that can't talk to one another.

Compatibility? Interoperability? Standards? Not yet, but there's hope for the near future. One potential complication is that in September 2002, AOL received a U.S. patent on IM technology. To date, AOL has given no indication that it intends to charge its competitors with infringement.

A Wider Presence

The traditional model of IM is widening rapidly as more people carry handheld wireless devices and as cellular telephones perform more functions.

LM Ericsson Telephone Co., Motorola Inc. and Nokia Corp. formed the Wireless Village Initiative to build presence technology into their mobile-phone services (also called m-presence capability). Officially known as the Instant Messaging and Presence Services Solution (IMPS), this should let users know if the people they're trying to contact are available, even before they pick up the phone. You'll only have to push a few buttons to see if the other person's phone is turned on and if that person is on the phone, in a meeting or even at lunch.

There's even discussion of using Global Positioning System technology in future versions of m-presence to let you know where a person is even before you make the phone call. This is similar to recent moves to incorporate location data into cell phone transmissions for law enforcement and public safety purposes.

Once that capability is in place, extending it to other devices and other inquiries is a potential next step. But before that can happen, we need more and better interoperability among messaging networks.

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