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Present and Correct?

July 31, 2012

One of the great innovations in communications over the last decade or so has been the concept of presence: i.e. the publication of one’s willingness and ability to communicate.  Presence is a lubricant that overcomes ‘communications friction’: it gets us out of ‘voicemail jail’, increases our communication completion rate and reduces unwanted interruptions.  It was the addition of presence to SIP in 2001 that turned a fairly unexciting VoIP technology into what we now call unified communications (UC).  However, presence isn’t foolproof.

The best implementations of a presence system do not require direct inputs from humans.  In fact, if you rely on a person to manually update their presence state, they either won’t bother, or they will do it intermittently or they will do it erroneously.  So good presence systems have to take input from indirect, but more reliable sources such as devices in use (e.g. if you are on a call, you are busy) from online calendars (e.g. if you are supposed to be in a meeting, you are busy) or from keyboards (e.g. if you are typing, you are ‘available’, or if you haven’t touched the keyboard/mouse for a finite time, then you are potentially ’away’).

You can see where I am going with this: there is room for error in these indications.  If I am scheduled to be in a meeting, but decided not to go, am I busy or available?  If I didn’t touch my computer because I am reading a paper report or am engaged in a face-to-face discussion; am I available, or away, or busy?  There are also conflicting inputs provided by multiple sources.  The calendar says I am in a meeting down the hall, but the system indicates I am on the phone in my office.  The desktop computer says I am away from my desk, but the calendar and all my devices indicate that I am available.

How these conflicts are resolved are implementation specific: there are no standards for this so we must trust that the UC vendor’s designers will make the best choices available, but clearly some situations turn out to be indeterminate.  There is also the issue of ‘stale presence’, i.e. the presence state potentially changed, but the system was not updated, or was updated ambiguously.  Furthermore, some presence systems allow ‘filtered presence’, i.e. differentiating the presence indication between one watcher (or type of watcher) and another.  An example would be: ‘available to my boss and team-mates, but busy to everyone else’.  This is a powerful concept, but it adds another layer of complexity, from which errors can emerge.

One of NextPlane’s features as a federation cloud service is the communication and intermediation of presence states.  However, we can only go by what we are ‘told’ by the user’s presence system.  Furthermore, to intermediate presence between diverse implementations, we have to ‘map’ presence states from one system to another.  What may be ‘in a meeting’ on one system may only map to ‘busy’ in another; does that mean ‘on a call’, ‘in a meeting’ or ‘out of the office’?  If the watcher’s system doesn’t have that level of granularity, then we can’t provide that information.

Does this mean that presence is useless?   Absolutely not!  Presence is still an invaluable indication of the likelihood of getting in touch with someone and is, without doubt, better than phoning periodically, only to be faced with leaving that embarrassing voicemail: “Hi, it’s Farzin again – hope you got my last message.  Call me….”.

So what are your options?  Veteran UC users use instant message (IM) ‘pings’ to supplement presence.  If you need to speak to the person, but the presence indication indicates ‘away’ or ‘busy’, you can (depending on your relationship) always send a short IM asking for confirmation of availability or permission to ‘escalate’ the session; something like:

  • “Quick question?”
  • “Time for a quick call?”
  • “Ping me when free?”
  • Or simply “yt?” (You there?)

Worst case, you might get ignored; or the person simply doesn’t see your IM, so don’t take it personally.  You might get a deferral, or have to settle for an IM conversation if the person is in a meeting.  Alternately, you might find that the person values you or that conversation enough to break off from their current task.  Either way, the conversation now becomes consent-based, and communications friction has been alleviated.  That is a vast improvement on voicemail, whichever way you look at it.

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