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How did we ever get by without Federated Presence?

September 30, 2011

‘Network presence’ is the publication of your willingness, ability and specific capability to communicate with others who may be authorized to view your presence. This concept has been around for 15 years, since the early days of ICQ. However, this feature now underpins the differentiation of unified communications (UC) from VoIP. The latter is merely about making phone calls on the internet – unified communications is a radically different way of communicating.

In the online world, presence has become a reflexively-used mechanism for checking which of our contacts is available and is willing to communicate. Presence is a great reducer of communications friction – we don’t have to dial a number hoping that we don’t end up listening to an interminable voicemail prompt (“Blah, blah, blah….when you have finished recording you may hang up or press one for more options…”). For most of us who are lucky enough to have access to UC, the game of ‘phone tag’ is now only played on the mobile phone, if at all. Is Alice in a meeting? Can I get a quick call with Bob before he starts his day? Since Carol is on vacation this week, I wonder who else is available that can help me resolve this issue? Answers to these questions and more are revealed with a quick check of a colored lamp and possibly some clarifying status text next to the person’s name.

Of course, that works perfectly inside your company, where UC is available among all your colleagues. But since they are your colleagues, and possibly just work down the hallway, you already have a reasonable sense of their whereabouts. This is not the case for your equally important business associates outside your company. What about the delivery manager at your key supplier who you urgently need to contact? What about the customer who left you an irate voicemail for each of the last 3 days but who you never seem to be able to catch in the office? Unfortunately, it’s back to the stone age of voicemail and email for those conversations. Unless…you have federated presence.

The federation of presence and instant messaging (if not voice and other UC ‘modalities’) between two companies can eliminate a multi-day information exchange and transform an impending crisis into a problem solved. Rick is a production manager at a US manufacturing firm and Klaus is the shipping manager at a key component supplier in Germany:

Klaus: Hey Rick, you are in the office early today.
Rick: Yeah, I saw your email about the shipment delay, so I came in early to rearrange the production schedule.
Klaus: I just got off the phone with the logistics guys. The problem has been solved and you should get your shipment on time. Sorry for the false alarm.
Rick: No problem: you just made my day. Thanks for letting me know!

Note that the two UC systems need not be natively interoperable: Klaus is on an XMPP-based presence system and Rick’s firm has deployed a SIP-based presence system – but they can still communicate via a federation service like NextPlane.

About 20 years ago, the advent of email freed us from the tyranny of the fax machine and we wondered how we ever got by without it. A little over 10 years ago, mobile phones freed us from the tyranny of wireline telephony (remember phone booths and fumbling for coins?) and we wondered now how we ever got by without our cell phone. Now intra-company UC is freeing us from the tyranny of voicemail and other impediments to instant information exchange. How long will it be before you are wondering how you ever got by without seeing presence from all of your key business contacts, and not just from the other guys in the office?

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