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Mobility and the "New Presence"

I have a running gag going with a close friend of mine (I’ll call him Wesley, after his favorite Star Trek character) who works for Research In Motion.  Scrupulously polite, my friend’s Blackberry voice mail message says “Hi, you’ve reached Wesley’s Blackberry voicemail.  Unfortunately, I’m either away from my Blackberry or can’t take your call right now, so please leave a message after the tone.“  My reply is “Your Blackberry is strapped to your hip, and you’re just ignoring me, you rotten bum.  Call me!“.  And of course, I’m absolutely right every time. 

The intersection of presence and mobility is where the subtle politesse of telephone etiquette breaks.   Today’s presence metaphor, tied as it is to the device, is fundamentally broken in a mobile context.  What does it mean to be present when mobile?  My phone is on, and it’s not in use.  Am I available?  Maybe, and maybe not.  Where am I? Is the topic of the call suitable for discussion in a public place?  How about on an airline?

Mobile social networking applications like loopt, Kakiloc, and Dodgeball all focus on broadcasting location and status messages to a buddy list.  Change location, change status, and your social network knows.  That’s fine if your goal is to inform.

Mobile implementations of IM tools like Yahoo Messenger, and Google Talk provide the ability to say “available / busy”, if you remember to use them.  They provide others with some level of activity awareness, but unlike their desktop equivalents, they don’t go inactive after time away from the keys. Time away isn’t a valid concept when the device is always with you.

Location, without mediation; or awareness, without automation, assistance or context;  both of these solutions are point solutions in the integrated communications web.   

The three core elements of New Presence – context, relationship, and profile — are keys to unlocking a powerful presence capability for mobile users.  You can think of the New Presence model as analogous to a search engine.  In fact, it’s easy to think of it as a search engine for communications.  A search engine catalogs the content of the web, and the relationships between different pages (links-in / links-out), and then uses its algorithms to relate keyword search requests to content and relationship.  The New Presence model catalogs the users context and relationships, and relates those to profile information and communications behavior.  Who do you need to speak with, on what topic, and is that person available to you? Just as Google can find you the right web page, New Presence would be able to find you the right time to talk.

It’s the inter-relationship of context, relationship and profile that separates New Presence from IM applications, or location based services.  And, it is this inter-relationship that is key to unlocking the puzzle of mobile presence.

Let’s take a simple context — location, for example.  Who might a user want to indicate availability for in an environment like a theater?  Ones own children, perhaps, but not too many others.  How about when at home?  Certain co-workers, family and friends.  In the office? Customers.  And so on.

How about a slightly more complex context, like network cost?  When mobile on a fixed-wireless handset, who do I want to indicate availability to when on the high-cost cellular network, versus the low cost wi-fi network?

What about activity as context?  To whom would I indicate availability when in a meeting?  Let’s combine that with relationship… I’m meeting with the President of the United States.  Now who?  And I’m not Republican… now who? 

I’m on site with a customer, and need a server tech to help spec an install, and a lawyer to finalize a detail on a contract.  How can I find these people?  What if the server tech is part of my organization, and the lawyer is part of an outside firm?

The New Presence model, because it aggregates relationships, collects context, and spans organizational boundaries, is the solution. 

In the mobile world, today’s presence solutions will be worse than no solution.

The problem presence attempts to solve is rendezvous.  Yet rendezvous without the background of context and relationship is valueless, or worse yet, intrusive.  An extreme example: imagine if every panhandler on the street had your mobile presence handle and could ping you as you walked by?   Or worse, every shop owner could push you advertising?

Most of all, when the mobile phone is widely regarded as the last bastion of privacy that many of us have, what impact will layering presence on to it have?  That’s the challenge before us.  The New Presence model offers the foundation for solutions.


Some commentary from around the blogosphere on the original New Presence:

Andy Abramson: “what Alec is proposing is a clean up of the imperfect, immature and still evolving world of being presence in the context of being “public” without being “open” all the time when it comes to planned and unplanned real time communications.”

Amen, Andy!

Phoneboy: “The problem I have isn’t a presence problem, it’s an identity problem. I have too many identities! I know a larger subset of people that have that problem rather than a “presence management” problem. And I think I have a solution: a single identity for all networks.”


Brough Turner: “I want a communications interface that helps me capture my preferences.  When I receive a call on my mobile, there’s a one-click way to capture the caller ID into a phone book entry.  I need comparable (and better) help in creating and maintaining profiles.  If, in a particular circumstance, I decline a call from a specific caller, the phone should recognize this behavior and ask me “Do you always want to send this caller to voice mail when your phone is in vibrate mode?”  and so on.”

Phones should be so smart…

Ken Camp:  Hates the terminology.  How does he relate these ideas to ordinary people?  Yup.  Presence is a pretty esoteric idea.

David Beckemeyer: “Ultimately interaction is a NEGOTIATION of privacy and availability. The most effective tools, therefore, in some way leverage these natural social negotiations, providing cues that, as naturally as possible, simulate or are analogous to, cues people have used for generations (or millenia). There is very little work being done along these lines and this is why I believe all such attempts to achieve this “presence nirvana” have failed. The focus is always on cool technology, artificial intelligence, and such, performing the negotiation on behalf of the human rather than focusing on tools to better facilitate how humans already negotiate social interactions.”


Marc Orchant: “I could bounce around to all of these channels and change the state of my presence as my availability changes but that’s simply not going to happen. It’s too much work and I have too many devices, services, and applications to engage in an eternal round-robin of preferences changes worthy of a Greek myth.”

Moreover, the vendors want to keep it that way…

Luca Fillighedu: “In fact, with “rich presence” I mean the ability to recover and put together different information coming from different sources in order to create a presence status, which can be even strictly dependent on the surrounding environment. With “New presence”, I see a deeper involvement of the social networking aspect, that is the relationship between me and my contacts (friends, colleagues, whatever…). ”

Right on, Luca. 

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Ken Camp December 21, 2006, 5:30 pm

    Alec, as much as I want to flesh this idea out this evening, I'm bandwidth constrained with holiday preparation. But let me toss a quick brainfart your way.

    Take iotum's intelligent presence engine.

    Add in a mobile with GPS.

    Tie in something like Plazes.

    Add Twitter to the mix.

    Now I can tell my "Internet social director" never bother me at this location because it's the bog boss' office.

    Let me correlate via SMS some information about the GPS coordinates where I am. OK, give me voice synthesis and let me do it with a phone call too. Or IM. Infinite possibility.

    This is pure technology speculation, but hey, I've been dealing with cluetards all afternoon and I'm allowed to wildly hit and run. And that's what I've gotta do now….run and do holiday stuff.

    Best atcha!

  • Alec December 21, 2006, 6:01 pm

    I think you're on to something Ken :) Cheers!


  • Martin Dufort December 21, 2006, 11:34 pm

    Alec, Ken: I think your physical location will always be key in this context. However with the advent of mobile phones, we now can be reached everywhere but we do not necessarily want to be, not by everyone, not at all locations (thus your blackberry example).

    Uniting physical location (GPS-supplied, or self-identified) and your view of “your” world is what will make this succesful and will drive your “New presence” I think Alec. But again privacy will play a big role also.

    On that note David H. Williams had a very informative article on the lbs360.net site that talked about determining privacy requirements for Location-Based Services.

    However, I think Ken’s comments are right on the money…
    Happy holidays 😉 Martin

  • MGU December 22, 2006, 9:37 am

    So far I've managed without one – a cell phone that is! Dad

  • Alec December 22, 2006, 10:28 am

    I totally agree Martin. Location is a huge piece of this puzzle. Happy holidays to you too!

  • Sean O'Mahony December 22, 2006, 4:18 pm

    This is very, very interesting Alec. I’ve enjoyed reading it. One thing that struck me though was the social component of presence. As you point out many of the components that make up this model already exist and we manually configure our presence and our status — which is a massive pain. However, some people can’t even manage this.

    By this I mean the person we often meet in the morning in the line up for a coffee. Yes that obnoxious person screaming into their phone about some banal problem at work that now becomes part of our life. Or that person who you are meeting with whose BB vibrates and in the ultimate pavolvian response disengages with you places this interruption ahead of his interaction wit you. Or the ultimate — sadly I see this more and more. You’re in the airport having a pee and some bloke walks in with his phone attached to his ahead on a business call and goes ahead and has a pee while on the call!

    So I’m interested to see if the application of technology can change some of this behaviour because some people just cannot manage their presence status in this existing world.

  • Alec December 22, 2006, 5:43 pm

    You gave me a chuckle Sean. I’ve seen the conversing urinator many many times. And of course, the Pavlovian Blackberry user as well.

    Manual configuration, in my opinion, isn’t an option. Truly intelligent systems will become presence prostheses — able to anticipate what you would likely do, and act upon your behalf.

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