Creating the Digital You
By Niall McKay in Silicon Valley, Mon Mar 05 00:00:00 GMT 2001

What's the best way to communicate with someone, at any given time? How would you know? Introducing Presence, software that unifies communications, and presents others with your digital self.

Recently, I was sitting in a lobby of a hotel when a man bolted out of a conference room, took out his cell phone and checked his voicemail. Then he took out his pager and scrolled through his text messages, booted up his laptop computer and checked his email. Then, cradling the phone between his chin and his shoulder, he left various messages while he typed replies to his email. Then he packed everything up and ran back to the conference room, and just as he reached the door his cell phone started to ring.

Sound familiar? For many of us, the Information Age is more of a punishment than a convenience. We’re weighed down with bags full of devices, adapters, computer cables and our heads swirl with the countless passwords, usernames and telephone numbers that we have to remember. If that weren’t enough, trying to actually reach the people we need to reach can be next to impossible as we are instructed by cruddy voicemail systems to type in dozens of numbers to get to the correct person only to be greeted with “this is the voicemail system.”

Now the computer and wireless communications industries are joining forces to try and solve this mess with an initiative called PAM, or Presence Availability Management. Originally proposed by Lucent and Novell, the initiative aims to provide Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs, that will enable service providers to design a whole host of new voice and data services that will simplify communications for subscribers.

In cooperation with emerging standards such as the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP), PAM aims to enable interoperability and enhance services between networks.

Simplistically, PAM can be seen like a sort of AOL Buddy List for the mobile phone, allowing users to see who is logged onto the phone network and whether they have selected a status, such as "In a meeting," "Busy," or "Away."

How it works

Like the AOL, Yahoo, or Microsoft instant messaging service, Presence services would take the form of a Buddy List on your phone or PC desktop. When you log onto the network or switch on your phone, your buddies would be notified that you are available.

Go a level deeper and it will enable users to see what device their buddies are using. A mobile phone? Landline? Whether they are online or roaming? That way, the best mode of communication can be chosen. Perhaps one of our buddies is in a meeting and doesn’t want to be called but can respond to a text message, or perhaps our buddy is already on the phone but his grandmother has just died and we have to break into his call and tell him to get on the next available flight to Boise, Idaho.

Put PAM together with the Federal Communications Commission’s E911 Location Accuracy Directive, which requires cell phone signals to be tracked within 150 feet, and you will not only know what device they are using but what their precise location is. Build a few services on top of PAM and you call just one number, and if our buddy is at home, the call will be automatically routed to his home phone number.

Outrageous! A disgraceful abuse of personal privacy, you may say. And you would be right. Except the whole point of PAM, so we are told, is to give the user complete choice over when and where they want to be contacted.

“PAM will enable users to enforce their control over who calls them, when they call them and what information they are given,” says George A. Hallenbeck, chairman of PAM Forum, the organization developing the API. “Otherwise, when location-based marketing arrives, every time you walk through a mall your phone will be nattering away as companies send you advertisements and coupons.”

Certainly, it’s tempting to think of PAM as just another useless API that will get buried under thousands of pages of documentation, proposals and counterproposals in one of the many standards organizations such as the IETF. However, PAM Forum has forged a deal with Parlay—a call control specification backed by some of the major telecommunications companies and computer vendors such as Microsoft, AT&T, British Telecom, and Ericsson. They, in turn, are trying to get Parlay adopted by the 3GPP, an organization that is trying to fix the technical specifications for third-generation wireless services.

Indeed, Microsoft is expected to announce this summer that it will include a presence capability in the next release of its Outlook contact management and address book software. That way, not only would the network providers be able to offer the services mentioned above, but also they would be able to build calendaring functions into the offerings. For example, if you are trying to reach an important client, your PAM software could look in both your and your client’s diaries, send a text message of a proposed meeting time, and if you both agree, connect the call automatically.

According to Patrick Kane, vice president of Internet applications for Ericsson, PAM is more likely to be adopted by corporations in the US and by consumers in Europe. This is because the US is still PC and personal digital assistant centric while Europeans rely more on their cell phones.

“The next wave for instant messaging in the US will be for the enterprise networks,” says Jack Kozik, director of enhanced services for Lucent. “That way a virtual attendant in a corporation would be aware of its employees’ presence either through their PC or cell phone and would know if there is a support person in the customer’s area.”

We should expect PAM services to start arriving in the third quarter of this year.

The companies involved

Already, there are a whole host of companies building PAM application software to cater to this new market. Ericsson has joined forces with the Icelandic Internet company OZ Networks and is reselling its iPulse software to telecommunications companies. iPulse enables the service providers to expose PAM services to its subscribers.

Other companies, such as Nortel, Lucent, Evolving Systems, TCS and, also have PAM software offerings. With all these services set to go into beta testing by the end of the year, now the question is: Who is going to own all that valuable data?

The telecom operators believe that they should own the information; so, too, do corporations that are adopting the services for their employees, and then there are the service providers and Web portals such as Yahoo who believe that they should own it.

“We believe that the customer should own the data,” says Kjartan Emilsson, CTO for OZ Networks. “There is no use pretending that introducing PAM services won’t introduce a whole new set of problems associated with it.”

For example, who will set Presence information for teenagers? “They might be eager to log onto mobile phone–based game services that collect location information,” says Emilsson. “So we believe that the parents must be given complete control over who contacts their teenagers.”

See, in the US, Joe Public seems to be only too willing to trade in his or her privacy (usually his) for convenience, and the E911 initiative has got a whole bunch of service providers and marketers excited about the services they can offer. But, in Europe, Joe Private, has a slightly different view and would rather do without the convenience if his privacy is compromised. In fact, the EU has stipulated that location-based services such as cell phone advertising or marketing offerings must be opt-in services. This means that the user has to explicitly give their permission to take part.

“I believe that this is one of the reasons that the carriers have shown so much interest in PAM,” said Guda Venkatesh, PAM Forum Technical Committee chairman. “Because PAM gives the consumer the control to select who should contact them.”

However, for now, location-based services won’t be offered because the technology is not quite there yet. What is more likely is that Presence or PAM-like services will start making their way into service offerings in the next 12 months. These will most likely be simple buddy lists that pop up on the handset display that interoperate with instant messaging clients on the users’ desktops.

Users will not only be able to know who’s got their phone switched on, but they will also be able to send a text message to them via their cell phone or PC desktop. Then, in the next 24 months, PAM, if adopted by the industry, should begin to simplify our lives by forwarding all messages and phone calls to the device that we are using. At that time we will be able to dispense with the need for carrying dozens of devices while on the road.

Then our friend who had to check his pager, cell phone, and email will simply be able to carry one device for all his communications needs. “That’s what technology does,” says Emilsson. “It solves the problems that it creates.”

Niall McKay is a contributing editor for the Red Herring magazine. He can be reached at