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“New Presence”

Presence will drive a fundamental change in the way that communications networks are used today. Today, callers have no way of knowing whether the party being called is available, or busy, or would consider the call an intrusion.

The Voice 2.0 Manifesto, October 2005

Today, we live in two extremes.  It’s not uncommon for some of us to be talking on the phone, while being pinged on Skype, with multiple IM sessions running.  In the middle of it all, the mobile phone will start ringing.  Or, the converse is true and we shut down all communications for some peace and quiet.

Life isn’t black and white.  It’s shades of grey.  We need solutions for managing those shades, rather than the black and white solutions we have in today’s first generation presence systems.  The solution is an evolution of today’s crude presence technologies into an architecture which I’ve described as New Presence.

Today’s Presence is an Unfulfilled Promise

The Voice 2.0 Manifesto is “all about me”  — my applications, my identity, my availability. Users are in control.  Developers bring new value directly to users with innovative applications that exploit the platform assets of identity, presence, and call control.  It’s not about the network anymore.  It’s about connecting people, and enabling conversations to occur.

Short, Williams and Christie’s 1976 work “The Social Psychology of Communications” argues that the social impact of a communication medium depends on the social presence it allows communicators to have.

When the Voice 2.0 Manifesto was written, it identified presence as  the enabler of conversation, allowing parties to easily determine each others willingness to engage, and by which technology. Presence, today, remains an unfulfilled promise despite the numbers of writers touting it as the future of communications for the better part of three decades now.

Cultural and technical barriers are the root of the problem.  Intrusive, inflexible, and widely derided by the very people they’re intended to help, first generation presence systems are frequently turned off by users.  Managers view the systems with suspicion, rightly asking whether the intrusion of presence is a productivity drain, rather than a productivity boost.  Users react negatively to the idea that their coworkers, partners, suppliers and customers can not only see where they are, but what they’re doing.

The solution is user driven presence — the New Presence model.

Presence geeks will notice the absence of discussion around standards like XMPP, SIP/SIMPLE, and IMS in this piece.  My assumption is that we’re going to get to a standard, and rather than debate the niki-norks of a particular protocol, this piece is about a vision for what presence might be when those details are completed.

The New Presence Model

New Presence is a user-centric view of presence.  Instead of merely reflecting the crude, device specific “availability awareness” of today, New Presence systems understand our context, relationships, wants and desires.  The New Presence model reflects the integrated conversation web we live in today.

The New Presence model has three building blocks: relationships, context, profile.  Each of these is a core component in a model which is fundamentally richer, and more user-driven than any presence model previously.

We all have many relationships in our lives.  Friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, business partners, affinity groups, political affiliations… these are but a few of the different relationships we have.  New Presence spans all of the different relationship repositories we have — personal address books, buddy lists, corporate directories, social networks, CRM and ERP systems, affinity groups, and more — to construct a complete taxonomy of all the relationships we have, not just relationships specific to a particular walled garden.  New Presence understands all the roles we play in our lives; worker, friend, parent, sibling, volunteer, and many others.

Most presence systems to-date have focused on a single piece of context information — “availability awareness”, or free/busy on a single device.  The context model of New Presence is a vastly richer model, extending today’s free/busy model to include time, time of day, location, social networking information, scheduled events (now and in the future), and many many more sources of contextual information.  As we live our lives, we leave electronic trails of information everywhere, all of which can be used to deduce context. At every moment, New Presence knows the fundamentals of what we do, where, with whom, and the relationship we have with those individuals, and how we might want to interact with others.

And lastly a system of profile management is an integral part of the New Presence model.  Profiles include identity and role management systems, the ability to specify behavior and rules for different contexts and relationships, and the ability to subscribe to different presence based services and applications which may be offered by various service providers.  With these tools, users will selectively reveal their availability to others based on relationship and context, rather than today’s blanket free/busy model. The completeness of the New Presence profile model will naturally lead to it becoming the default way by which we assert identity in the future, and every presentity will have the ability to securely assert the identity of its owner.

It’s Inevitable.  The “Walled Garden” Will Crumble

Today’s first generation implementations of presence are crude.  Device and domain specific, they are capable of identifying whether a given user is physically present at a particular device, but not much else.  Moreover, the current “walled garden” strategy being pursued by carriers and the large Internet portal players makes it exceedingly difficult to share information across multiple presence clouds and ignores the fact that we humans actually live heterogeneous lives.  Why can’t AOL users talk to MSN users?  Why is that users can access Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, and Blackberry Messenger on the latest Blackberry devices, but only from three separate applications?  Why not run one?  Why not have a single identity that can span all networks?

Users live lives outside the artificially constructed walled gardens of the network operators, and so must their presence.  Therefore, New Presenc
assumes a user-centric model of presence rather than a network-centric model. New Presence by its nature must be an off-carrier platform as it is dependent on the ability of users to assert identity, catalog relationships, and gather contextual information across multiple networks.

Whether federated, or centralized, New Presence platforms will span multiple networks and carriers.  Because of the inherent value of these systems, users will bring them into the networks on open platforms, rendering the walled gardens porous, and eventually valueless.

Applications: the Value Creators

The Voice 2.0 model is application focused.  Applications will be where the value is created.  New Presence enables many kinds of applications, such as:

  • Call Management Applications.  Informed by New Presence, call management systems will be more intelligent and capable than ever before.  Whether filtering incoming calls, or brokering future conversations between subscribers, New Presence will add the element of relationship and willingness to all calling scenarios.
  • Opt-in Advertising Systems. Google pioneered the use of context-driven advertising on the web.  New Presence systems are “communications search engines”. Inherently understanding context, relationship, and profile information, they could be used to drive advertising based revenue models.
  • Enterprise Applications. Sales force automation, CRM, accounting, email, payroll, customer service  and many other applications will be dramatically enhanced by the deep understanding of relationships and presence offered by New Presence.  In the New Presence world,
  • Mashup Driven Web Applications. Software vendors have the goal of embedding presence everywhere.  Wouldn’t it be nice, they ask, to know who the last five readers of a web site were?  Without New Presence, and its consequent policy and privacy guarantees, this vision will never come to pass.  New Presence gives users control over how their presence information is consumed, and by whom.  Using the XML lingua franca of the web, New Presence systems will supply that information to real estate listing services (so that browsers can find the nearest available agent, for instance), customer service systems, social networking sites, gaming systems, matchmaker services and more.  This hybrid model will permit people to freely share as much or as little information about themselves as they wish, secure in the knowledge that it cannot be abused.

Looking Forward

Like Voice 2.0, New Presence presents a user-driven view of the world.  In the New Presence world, it’s all about me, my identity, my relationships, and my willingness to engage in conversation.

Perhaps the two biggest barriers to New Presence today are:

  1. the simple confusion around protocol standards.  Ironically, this ought to be the simplest piece to solve.  Standards are simply codified ways to describe information.  The tussle between SIP / SIMPLE, and XMPP must be resolved before New Presence can effectively move forward.  Much of the rest of the technology required already exists.
  2. the will of the carriers and portal players, who still cling to the wilful delusion that they can capture every aspect of the users communication world.  In reality, the vast majority of us lead heterogeneous lives, and no service provider will ever change that.

Once the simple technical barriers are overcome, the intersection of the web and wireless networks will make it possible to bring New Presence capabilities to everyone, and the harried executive with phones and IM applications ringing all around will become a thing of the past.

The future of conversation belongs to open presence systems, and to New Presence systems, specifically.


Many thanks to

  • Martin Geddes, for his spider-web diagrams and work describing the potential value to be created outside of the conversation whgich inspired many of these ideas.
  • Jean-Louis Seguineau, for his intellectual and academically stimulating blog about presence on the web today.
  • Jeff Pulver, without whom the VoIP revolution would be a lot less interesting and successful than it has been.
  • Yossi Vardi, who had the vision to fund ICQ in the 1990’s and in doing so, created today’s world of instant messaging and presence.
  • Andy Abramson and Howard Thaw, who encouraged me to put these thoughts down and publish them for the world to see.