Presence enabled communication
Presence is probably the single most important tool to enable a more effective and efficient communication within and between enterprises and organizations. Presence will allow users to get an immediate view of who is available in the company to have a quick meeting or set up a conference call with. Many surveys show that presence and instant messaging (IM) gives employees the same feeling of quick instantaneous meetings at the coffee-machine that allows them to get fast responses and resolve issues collaboratively.
Interoperability was one major underlying current to Enterprise Connect in Orlando, Florida this year. Like many of my colleagues in UCStrategies have already reported the issue was clear when talking to enterprise customers, however talking to vendors, the story became much muddier.
Probably one of the first areas of interoperability an enterprise encounters in the area of Unified Communications (UC) is in the area of presence federation. Presence indicates a user’s availability and readiness to communicate. The whole idea being that one employee should be able to find a colleague available and willing to communicate. Why don’t we compare this with something we all are familiar with; the dial-tone in a telephone. When you lift a hand-set you get dial-tone, indicating that you have access to the network. Based on this network you have the ability to connect to a client (in this case a telephone) and identify if the user is present, busy or not available after initiating a conversation. Presence is the ability to see this availability before a conversation is initiated. In this context it could also be interesting for the user to see what the preferred way to communicate is so that one does not interrupt or seem disruptive.
Presence in a wider scope is called rich presence and it provides information about the current state of a user, indicating if busy on the phone, or available on a mobile device or via video or the state of specific equipment such as line-state or an application where it can monitor information on the state of shared resources. This type of aggregated presence collects information from many presence sources, combines it and then distributes it to clients subscribing to its information. But before the aggregated information is distributed a number of access control features as well as security and information policies are applied to determine if and what information should be displayed.
The idea of presence springs from a computer-client setting where the user sets his or her own state or uses automatic settings, such as away, if the keys on a computer has not been touched for some amount of time. Common states from a users’ client perspective were, available, busy, away, do not disturb, and possibly available for specific types of communication, such as IM.
Location, mood and free text
Social network sites such as Facebook introduced the concept of allowing users to add even more information to their presence state. This information could in itself spur or discourage communication. In organizations with a mobile workforce, location could add that extra information necessary for taking the right decision regarding communication. The concept of free-text could be used to indicate what a person is busy with, not only showing busy or do not disturb. For example one could add a text “With external customer” when setting the state “In meeting” indicating that extra care should be taken when trying to reach this person.
Once we use examples such as the above meeting one, you get into the area of synchronizing with your calendar. It contains information about your current and future states, in terms of meetings, travel and other things you have in your calendar. But this feature also puts a lot of requirements on calendar discipline. How should the information be handled, and should it impact how we are able to communicate with this person. Many use their calendar as a way to block off time for desk-work, or meetings with staff etc. This however is not solid blocks of “do not disturb” states. How is a system going to know this? Some calendars allow for setting categories on appointments. One specific is personal, which could be used to exclude or hide the information from other clients.
What if we write an appointment in the calendar which indicates that we are working from an off-site office or home-office? Should this impact the person’s state? Probably it should in some ways, but definitely not in all situations.
In the simplified example about dial-tone we used that to explain what presence is. There is however a PBX version of presence which presents the status of the user’s own extension. It uses programmable buttons on the desk-phone to show by lights or symbols, what is going on with the extension, there are three basic states, Ringing (blinking light), Engaged (light on) or Free (light off). Line-state is equally valid for fixed extensions as well as mobile handsets. It really does not matter if the handset is connected via proprietary protocols, DECT or WIFI wireless sets, IP (fixed or wireless) or is connected to a PBX via a mobile network (3G or other).
For most solutions the line-state is handled via the PBX and displayed on the programmed device.
Nordic presence, Referral system, Intercept computer or diversion message
This is a difficult term to translate. The Swedish term is translated as Referral information, but many times it is just called Nordic presence to differentiate it from other types of presence as discussed above.
What is so important about this feature? Well first of all, it is rather local, even though suppliers have been successful in selling it to customers throughout Europe.
The concept stems from reporting why a user can’t answer the phone. Basically it is tied to informing colleagues and the attendants what activity a person is busy with, or a sort of absence reporting. “I am in a meeting”, i.e. not able to talk on the phone. This feature has been combined with intercept messages, that inform the caller why the call is not answered and gives the user an option to leave a message or not.
With mobile extensions and Unified Communications, the concept has tried to fit into the Internet concept of presence, thus the name change to Nordic Presence. However the technology is not dead, nor its users, instead the focus is now to consolidate a number of sources, such as calendar information, activity information into a presence profile and then present this to the attendant or in a presence enabled user directory and the intercept message is now giving the user’s calendar a voice.
Human resources information
There is however other sources of rich presence information which is important from a unified communications perspective. HR systems include user status such as parental leave, sick leave, study leave, leave of absence, and if a person’s employment is terminated.
What can we do with all this information?
Imagine a collaborative organization that shares documents, works together without working in the same place and instantly is able to find the right competence. Clients can publish the information in easy to use clients. The information can be used for mobile workers who through the directory on the device can find out if a person is available, what he or she is involved with and what ways of communication is preferred.
A customer outside of the organization can call in and receive spoken information about the person dialed. This can be extended to extra-net solutions that share information with validated customers and partners.
This type of solution, open to many sources of information must rely on open standards. But the vendors are careful. One vendor told me “like any standard, the devil is in the details.” So what standards are out there in this context? Let me mention two alternatives, both based on open source developed code.
| XMPP||Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol is an open source communication protocol specifically for messages. The protocol may be known by many as Jabber. Originally for near real-time, extensible IM, presence information and contact lists. XMPP is developed using an open approach allowing anyone to implement an XMPP service to interoperate with other organizations. There are a number of freely distributed systems and clients available for download.|
|SIP SIMPLE||Session Initiated Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions. This is based on SIP which is a standard from IETF. SIMPLE is an open standard similar to XMPP. It deals with registration of clients to presence information, sending short messages and real-time messages between user’s clients.|
What do you need to do?
Users expect interoperability between tools that are used in the office. Use an approach that will identify ways of working that will have impact on what information is necessary in what client.
- Develop a long term strategy regarding what types of presence sources to monitor. Presence is a fundamental feature in a unified communications and collaboration solution.
- Develop a Presence and Instant Messaging framework in which vendors with IM features shall be able to connect and if possible and necessary share instant messaging streams.
- Decide on an end-goal regarding the organization’s way of working and identify requirements for a collaborative communications platform. Use this requirement specification in context with your suppliers of related equipment.