Presence: Pipe Dream?

Post ImageI got thinking about “presence” today, after reading a comment from Dan Gillmor in light of today’s eBay-Skype deal (hat tip Larry):

It’s official, and eBay will now be adding something to its portfolio: customers’ presence online. The possibilities are endless. I didn’t get this at first, but now I do.

Unfortunately he didn’t “get it” enough to elaborate in his post. There are of course a few “gotchas” associated with eBay acquiring presence – eBay users need to be Skype users, and somehow the two need to be associated or perhaps merged (like Yahoo and Flickr recently started to do). I disagree that the possibilities are endless though. Adding Skype doesn’t give eBay users any capabilities they didn’t already have with other IM systems. Of course, if the two companies can integrate auctions with Skype in a new and interesting way, that may change, but there’s still only so much presence information can give you.

The Holy Grail of Presence

There has long been a goal among technology companies, business people, and many others to have “presence” information about users. That is, knowing when someone is online or offline, available or unavailable. The idea works best when combined with location – are you online at home or at the office? There are many supposed benefits to having such information, not the least of which is greater productivity and efficiency. That being said, I think presence is one big pipe dream – at least for the forseeable future.

From Wikipedia:

Presence is defined as the “availability and willingness of the user (presentity) for communication”. Presence information is published by individuals to other systems users, known as ‘watchers’ or ‘subscribers’, to indicate their communication state. Although not limited to IP communications, it has become synonymous with IP applications such as VoIP and Instant Messaging.

The problem with presence is that it’s inaccurate at best. I have two MSN Messenger accounts. One is online 24/7 unless there’s a problem with my connection or with MSN itself. The other one is for my tablet, and I sign in as “Maq@Location” to try and share both presence and location information. But even back in the days of ICQ, my “always on” connection is usually set to Away, even when I’m here. That’s not really accurate! What users really want is to be able to say “Jack can contact me at any time, regardless of my status, but Mary can only contact me when I am Online”. Unfortunately, almost no one is going to take the time to manually set those restrictions.

And what about when you get up from your desk to grab a cup of coffee or use the washroom? Unless you remember to switch your status, your presence information is no longer accurate! How about moving from the computer to a different device, like your cell phone? You’d likely have to sign out of the computer and sign into the cell phone. Not the best scenario in the world is it?

Presence needs to be seamless for it to work. My devices and applications should all work together to know where and when I am available. In the best case, my devices should know that if I am out and about with only my cell phone or PDA, I might not be able to respond, and could then share this information with contacts. Let’s say I am working on a specific project in Outlook – my devices and applications should adjust my presence so that I am available to people related to the project, but maybe not to others.

Can we get there? I think one day we will, as much of the technology needed to achieve “true” presence exists today; things like wireless communications, RFID tags, web services, and other base technologies. For now though, presence remains a pipe dream.

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