Multimedia tools let others see if you’re available and what device you’re using Presence management has gained a considerable buzz among telecom systems and applications vendors. For users, it is likely, over time, to become a new way of doing business. But at this stage, the task is still to discover what "presence" is and what benefits it can bring. The basic idea, neither complex nor new, is to use telecom signaling data and network-based software to monitor and report on where people are and whether and how they can be reached. In the enterprise, it boils down to a set of tools that on the one hand let others see your real-time communications status—whether you’re on the phone or not, available via instant messaging, in transit but with mobile phone, etc.—and, on the other, let you control who can communicate with you when and how. The benefits? More real-time communication; less telephone tag,because you can now see if the other person is on the phone before dialing; less e-mail; plus the ability to quickly see and take advantage of often brief windows of availability for individuals or entire work teams. Quantifiable GainsThe recent fanfare about presence may be reason enough to take a closer look at the subject, but the technology and the applications it enables—available today and for some time, despite the perception that this is bleeding edge stuff—also have potential to provide significant returns, often on not much investment. These gains are mostly difficult-to-quantify productivity improvements, but in some horizontal and vertical applications—call centres, for example—they are quantifiable, as we’ll see. Realizing those benefits, though, may take a significant change management effort to get employees comfortable with a new kind of transparency. Bottom line: enterprise IT managers need to carefully consider what presence can do for them and how to manage the adoption of this technology. By its nature it will require a top-down adoption strategy. But it is also true that it will enter the enterprise in one form or another whether you like it or not—either because it’s inherent in new systems you buy or because employees adopt presence-based services such as instant messaging on an ad-hoc basis. Microsoft, that great master of buzz, is partly responsible for the recent increase in decibel levels around presence. In March it launched Office Communicator 2005 (formerly known as Istanbul). Office Communicator is client software that works with Office Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005, introduced late last year, and with desktop Office applications. In concert, they enable, or will enable, new kinds of presence-based collaboration tools—the ability to see the real-time availability of your contacts from within Outlook, for example. But Microsoft is in some respects a johnny-come-lately. In the enterprise market, presence management has been part of the core feature sets of IP-based PBX and call centre products from major vendors, including Siemens and Nortel Networks, for at least two years. It’s also built into products from interesting smaller vendors such as Pingtel. In the larger IP space, it predates those developments by several years. Instant MessagingThe most familiar presence-enabled application—at least since the term was coined—is instant messaging (IM), a mainstay of teen culture, but increasingly popular with older consumers as well. And if you get IM, you get presence—an automatic indication of whether other IM users are at their keyboards. And IM is being used in the enterprise more and more, as e-mail is increasingly compromised by spam and other abuses, and as the notion of real-time collaboration takes hold. A recent report from META Group Inc. notes that a significant chunk of IM use by professionals today is for personal communications or communicating about work from home. But the report adds, "We expect enterprise usage to become pervasive by 2008." Some would argue that presence has an even lengthier pedigree. "In a sense, we’ve had presence built in to PBXs and key systems for years," says Alex Pierson, vice-president and general manager of enterprise multimedia systems at Nortel. "The system knows, for example, if you’re on the phone and how to call forward if you’re busy. Even the old busy lamp that let your secretary see if you were on the phone was essentially an early form of presence." Presence has simply evolved, Pierson says. One key evolutionary step was the move to IP telephony in the enterprise. Given the ubiquity of IP in the wide area—the Internet, IP-capable mobile and fixed wireless networks and public IP telephony services—the potential now exists to communicate using IP, including sending signaling information, over a vast sprawl of interlinked wide and local area networks. SIP-based Phone SystemsThe other key ingredient is SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), a signaling protocol that establishes and governs IP connections of various kinds—voice, IM, video and Web conferencing. SIP was developed by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), building on existing IP technologies such as HTTP and MIME. SIP is based on a client-server model. A SIP server communicates with SIP-enabled clients—either firmware in products such as desktop IP phones, new Wi-Fi wireless phones and, eventually, cellphones, or software residing on computers and PDAs. Windows XP includes native support of SIP. Because SIP clients automatically broadcast their presence and status on a network, SIP-based IP phone systems are inherently "presence aware" and support presence-based applications. New-wave vendors such as Pingtel, with its SIP-based SIPxchange IP-PBX software, which runs on industry-standard Linux servers, would have you believe that old-guard PBX vendors can’t or don’t want to do SIP because theirs are mainly proprietary solutions. "The fact that very few VoIP solutions support SIP is due to the legacy of those companies—they’re all about selling expensive hardware," says Pingtel CEO William Rich. In fact, traditional vendors are hastening to embrace SIP and presence, and some have had SIP-based products for some time. Nortel, for example, has "SIP-enabled" its Communication Server 1000 portfolio of IP telephony products for the medium to large enterprise environment (40 to 10,000+ users). It’s now in the process of SIP-enabling Business Communications Manager (BCM) at the lower end (5 to 200 users), and the Communication Server 2100 designed for large enterprise and campus environments (2,000 to 200,000 users). The promise of SIP ultimately is to make BlackBerrys and other devices on cell and public-access Wi-Fi networks visible to corporate presence-based applications through SIP gateways. Road warriors could see at a glance which of their colleagues was available for consultation, and the system would know that they’re available on their cellphone or at a Wi-Fi hotspot. "That’s the first real challenge—to get all the bits of information from different devices in different places to come to one place," Pierson says. "The second piece is, now what do you do with it? It’s all very interesting to know whether somebody’s on the phone but what does that really mean?" Benefit and DownsidePierson says colleagues at Nortel will now instant message each other with quick questions if they see the other party is on the phone—"Are we still on for lunch?" or "Are you available for a meeting in five minutes?" There’s an obvious benefit to this. On the other hand, if you’re trying to concentrate on a phone call and your IM client keeps popping up and beeping at you, it could be distracting. The notion of follow-me or find-me communications has been around for a while. With Nortel’s MCS 5100 (see box), users can tell the system to ring office, cell and home phones sequentially, until one is picked up, or simultaneously. This mode of communication has enthusiastic advocates, but it is also clearly not for everybody. There is clearly a risk of reducing productivity among some workers by making them more prone to interruption. But presence can also be used to provide privacy, by ensuring that none of these devices ring except, perhaps, for certain high-priority callers. Quantifiable BenefitsPierson concedes that some of the benefits from Nortel’s MCS 5100 are difficult to quantify, but argues that the profile or personal agent functions that selectively route communications could allow some organizations to reduce "clerical infrastructure"—who needs a secretary if the phone system software now does what he or she used to do? He also points to the case of Monster.com, the international Web-based employment agency, which implemented an MCS 5100 system to help manage an on-call system for the company’s IT maintenance staff. Keeping Monster’s Web servers up and running is mission critical, Pierson says. In the past, off-site on-call staff were supposed to send e-mails updating their availability, but often forgot. Now they use IM-style status indicators and dynamic—automatically transmitted—presence information. Team members can not only see who’s on call but also who’s currently busy on the phone. IT staff don’t as often have to leave an e-mail for a colleague and wait for a response. Response times to trouble calls have generally dropped, and IT staff aren’t spending as much time struggling through backlogs of voice mails. ‘Aha’ EffectSiemens, meanwhile, has been aggressively pushing SIP and presence management as key capabilities of both its HiPath OpenScape network application software suite for real-time communications and collaboration and, most interestingly, its HiPath ProCenter Agile call centre system. Both have been on the market for a couple of years. "Presence isn’t something most enterprises are actively seeking yet," says Ross Sedgewick, director of global product marketing for Trango Software, a division of Siemens. "But when they discover that it’s built in to these products, they suddenly discover there are huge benefits to be had. There’s a real ‘Aha!’ effect." It gives Siemens a competitive advantage, he claims, especially in the otherwise relatively undifferentiated call centre market. "Customers often ask us, ‘What makes your solution different?’ And that opens the discussion to presence. Where customers are looking at a lot of very similar products, these features really make ours stand out." Traditional call centre systems already use skills-based routing to initially get calls to the best available agent for a particular customer issue. The presence management features in ProCenter now help agents reroute to the best available person when escalating a call. First-Call Resolution They see who is currently available so they can do a warm transfer or add another expert on the line, without frustrating customers by leaving them on hold, dumping them into voice mail or, worse, requeuing them so they have to start over. There is more here than just a customer service benefit. "According to the Call Center Managers Forum, up to 30% of call centre operational costs are related to lack of first contact resolution," Sedgewick says. "That could be escalations, repeat calls, transfers that end in voice mail, requeuing—or just putting somebody on hold while you run around looking for the right person." The presence features in ProCenter can help reduce some of that. Sedgewick points to the case of the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), which operates an insurance company for its teacher members. Before installing the ProCenter Agile system in its call centre, the company told Siemens, 40% of calls went to voice mail or were requeued when agents tried to engage an adjuster to adjudicate an issue or provide the customer with additional information. "Since installing the system, the number of calls abandoned while the customer was on hold or after being requeued were reduced by 60%," Sedgewick says. "Call volumes to the workman’s compensation group have also dropped overall by 15% to 20%, and they attribute that mainly to higher first call resolution." He concedes there may be economic considerations in deciding whether you want certain types of highly skilled employees taking customer calls in the first place. But where lower-paid front-line call centre staff simply can’t resolve customer issues or ensure customer satisfaction, presence management helps bring order and efficiency to the process of getting second-level support involved. Call Centre ExtensionPierson sees presence management also helping large, distributed companies extend the call centre out into the organization to handle overflows. For example, a customer call from Atlanta to a building supply company’s call centre in New Brunswick could be rerouted to a store floor in Toronto where the system can see that an employee is available to take a call on his Wi-Fi phone. The call centre application looks as if it could be a killer app for presence. And with the Siemens product, presence management is available right out of the box—little or no integration and little or no additional cost over systems without these features. But even the call centre application works better when presence management capabilities encompass the entire organization or larger chunks of it. Presence management for the whole enterprise promises significant but less easily measured benefits. It will now be easier for members of distributed work groups to see when a member or all members are available for an impromptu meeting, for example—even if some of them are in transit with a cellphone. And decisions can be made more quickly when it’s easier to find an available decision maker. Implementing presence across the enterprise using products such as Siemens OpenScape and Nortel MCS 5100 will not be as simple as opening the Siemens HiPath ProCenter Agile box and implementing it in the call centre. It will require greater integration, and possibly application development—though the new Microsoft products may eliminate much of that. Other ContendersSiemens and Nortel are not the only traditional vendors making progress on SIP and presence. Cisco has acquired Dynamicsoft, an independent developer of SIP and presence-based applications that can make cellular networks "presence aware." Mitel announced an agreement with Microsoft last fall to develop a Signaling and Media Gateway to work with Live Communications Server and Office Communicator. There are also start-ups with instant messaging and presence management solutions aimed at the enterprise, companies such as Parlano with MindAlign and Antepo with its Open Presence Networks (OPN) system—though they typically do not offer comprehensive multimedia communications capabilities like the Nortel and Siemens products. And products such as iFollow Enterprise Gateway from Followap Telecommunications let PCS service providers offer enterprises services that will extend IM and presence out into the wide area network. Adoption CurveWe recently asked VoIP pundit and long-time presence advocate Jeff Pulver if he thinks IT and telecom managers today generally "get" presence. "It depends how old they were when they entered the work force," Pulver responded. "Presence is redefining a generational gap. People who do not get it, likely will not get it. People who rely more on cellphones and instant messaging inherently understand presence. It may not become that big until a new generation is in control, those who grew up intuitively understanding it." The same, however, could have been said about e-mail a decade ago, notes Sedgewick. "You could argue that it took longer for generation to embrace e-mail, so there could be a grain of truth to what Pulver says," Sedgewick adds. But in the end, it became the business standard. Siemens’ Sedgewick believes the hour of presence has struck. "We expect an accelerated period of adoption now. Even 24 months ago, most people would have no idea what you were talking about when you started talking about presence. That’s no longer the case." But for the moment, as in the first stages of most technological innovations, it’s mainly early adopters, companies that are always on the lookout for a technological edge in order to gain competitive advantage, or niche customers who have a special need, who are taking initiatives to implement presence management systems. It’s a fair bet that presence and presence management will become mainstream IT/telecom functions in the future and will some day, like e-mail, be accepted as a standard way to do business—not because companies will be willing to invest heavily in adding these capabilities, but because they will become inherent in IP-based infrastructure and applications. Nortel’s MCS 5100 Offers User-Access ProfilesNortel’s Multimedia Communication Server 5100 (formerly Succession Multimedia Xchange) was first to market among SIP-based servers from major manufacturers and has been available for two years. It lets enterprises deploy presence and instant messaging applications along with multimedia (e.g. IP-based video conferencing), collaboration (Web conferencing) and personalization (call screening, etc.) applications. The company recently announced a deal with Research In Motion to integrate the MCS 5100 with RIM’s BlackBerry enterprise platform so that new BlackBerry 7270TM Wi-Fi-only phone/PDAs can send and receive presence information on a MCS 5100 network. The BlackBerry product is designed to be used in large enterprise and campus settings by mobile workers. The MCS 5100 platform, like other presence-enabled communications platforms, also allows users to establish profiles that determine how others can or should communicate with them. The profile could automatically show, in the same way IM clients do, that the person is available, unavailable, busy or offline. But users can also say how they want particular people to reach them or how they want to be reached at particular times of the day or week. And the profile can be changed on the fly to accommodate changes in schedule or circumstance. "If it’s a call from Fred Owens who works in the mail room, I want it to go to my secretary or into voice mail because he’s probably calling to say there’s a FedEx package for me," says Nortel’s Alex Pierson. "If it’s Bill Owens , I want the system to use the presence information, and I want the software to make an intelligent decision about how to reach me—I want it to know which of my devices is available. And if it’s my ex-wife’s lawyer calling, I want it to go to busy overflow!"