Controlling Your Presence
By Jeff Goldman, Tue May 06 00:00:00 GMT 2003

From location-based buddy lists to tracking a sales force in real time, presence technology offers a whole new world of wireless possibilities.

Many mobile services promise to transform the way you live, replacing drudgery and frustration with simple convenience-but few have a sales pitch as great as that of presence.

It could mean the end of telephone tag.


Put simply, presence is the ability to find out ahead of time whether the person you want to call is available or not-and knowing exactly where he or she is. In providing that functionality, presence holds the remarkable promise of eliminating wasted phone calls altogether.

For the time being, though, you'll have to make do with the simplest example of presence: instant messaging.

The FirstStep

Wireless instant messaging is now making its appearance in the UK through the mobile portal O2, in the Philippines with Chikka, and in the US through AOL IM's agreements with AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS, among others. Those services, however, are limited to WAP phones-and for users familiar with instant messaging on PCs, that can present a problem.

Chuck Stormon, co-founder of Coherent Networks, explains that for IM, WAP has significant limitations. "You turn your phone on, you find your microbrowser, you fire it up, you initiate a WAP session-which takes maybe five or ten seconds-then you launch the instant messaging application," he said. "Look what you've had to do: it's not user-friendly. And that's the state of the art."

Still, those limitations do make the future look that much brighter: Keith O'Brien, Head of Instant Messaging at O2, says IM is a great selling point for GPRS. "It's one of the only applications out there that could realize the potentials of GPRS and 3G networks," he said. "The core functionality behind the product is something you really benefit from when you offer packet switched connections."

In fact, according to Cahners In-Stat Group, the shift to GPRS for instant messaging should cause such a boost in its popularity that 65 percent of all communications will be handled through instant messaging by 2005. When it's infinitely easier to send an instant message than it is to place a phone call, voice calling may well go the way of the handwritten letter.

Your EverythingList

At the same time, O'Brien suggests that instant messaging is best seen as nothing more than a comfortable first step toward the many other potential uses of presence. "Instant messaging provides an excellent way to educate the user base towards new interactive services, rather than deploying a feature-rich application that no one has seen before," he said.

Instant messaging can, in fact, provide the ideal foundation for more feature-rich presence services. Once presence moves beyond IM, mobile operators may well continue to use the buddy list as a central interface for presence-related services. Scroll through a list of contacts, and you can view instantly whether they're available, and where: it's a perfect way to make use of presence on a mobile device.

Ali Diab, Vice President of Marketing at the messaging company Invertix, notes that buddy lists solve many of the problems presented by mobile browsers. "The buddy list is a highly efficient interface, because people are very comfortable using the address book on their phone," he said. "It's an intuitive way of accessing information."

Taking the buddy list one step further, Coherent Networks' Stormon adds that presence can also empower unified messaging, allowing the network to track your presence and availability wherever you happen to be. "It gives you the ability to communicate using the network, independent of what phone you have to pick up, or whether you're on the Internet, your cell phone, or a land line," he said.

Add location-based services to the mix, though, and the possibilities increase exponentially.

Location, Location,Location

Combining location-based services with presence turns your buddy list into something much more dynamic. SignalSoft's FriendFinder, currently available through such mobile carriers as Sweden's Telia Mobile, serves as one of the earliest examples of this kind of offering.

FriendFinder allows subscribers to set up buddy lists in groups (such as coworkers, people you like to drink with, etc.) then use SMS messages to locate them: click on a buddy or an entire group, and an automated message is immediately returned with each buddy's location and availability. It's a simple idea, but it makes it infinitely easier to gather a group of friends to go see a movie or grab a drink.

Still, like IM on WAP, FriendFinder via SMS is very rudimentary, requiring messages to be sent and received before each buddy is located. Once the service moves to GPRS, it could extend to giving you real-time location information about everyone on your buddy list whenever your phone is switched on. But some analysts doubt that combining always-on location awareness with presence will be successful.

Seamus McAteer, Principal Analyst at the Zelos Group, isn't optimistic about the GPRS version. "It's a substantial undertaking," McAteer said. "I don't think you'll be continuously broadcasting your location to all the people on your buddy list, just because of the system requirements in the carrier infrastructure, and because of privacy concerns."

Regardless, tracking down your friends is just the beginning: it's when presence and location are combined that the true potential of presence becomes clear. For example, a manager could know instantly where each member of his sales force is and how to reach them-or a trucking fleet could be tracked in real time, allowing a supervisor to know the location and presence of each vehicle and driver.

Stop FollowingMe

When you consider any location-based service that includes presence, though, privacy becomes a significant concern-and Shane Furlong, Vice President for Marketing Strategy at communications software provider Evolving Systems, notes that the challenges are even more complicated than you might think.

"My company pays for my cell phone, but I'm the user," Furlong said. "Whose privacy do you protect? Who has permission to track the location? And then there's the question of who owns that information: does the carrier own it, or do I as the user? These are questions that need to be answered, but I think that operators do need to err on the side of protecting their subscribers and their users."

Coherent Networks' Storm says it's crucial to make sure that the user maintains control of their own location data-particularly when that data is being used for business purposes. "Certainly, you don't want your boss to know where you are at two o'clock in the morning on a Saturday," he said. "But nine to five Monday to Friday, sure."

On the other hand, researcher Andy Fuentes of Allied Business Intelligence contends that concerns about privacy are likely to fall by the wayside as presence-related applications become increasingly popular. "I'm sure that there will be some people who'll be concerned, but I don't believe that it will be enough to override the success of these systems," he said.


From instant messaging to a developer's wildest dreams, all presence-based applications face an additional challenge: interoperability. If you can only check the presence of other people who happen to be subscribed to the same carrier or service as you, how popular can presence-driven applications really become?

A number of groups, including Wireless Village, the PAM Forum, and others, are working to keep such interoperability issues at bay. Whether those groups are the sponsors of industry-wide standards themselves or simply provide the inspiration for others to work towards interoperability, most in the industry seem to be optimistic about the prospects.

Janne Kilpelainen, Technology Marketing Manager for Nokia Mobile Phones, says interoperability is all but inevitable. "When we have interoperable handsets from all the Wireless Village supporters in the market, that user community will become quite compelling to the big Internet companies, who will find it quite attractive to make their service interoperable as well," he said.

Zelos Group's McAteer contends that the market for presence software will soon shrink sufficiently that interoperability will be simple to negotiate. "There are far too many vendors for a market that doesn't even exist today," he said. "We'll see a shakeout in this market in short order: within a year, we'll be down to just two or three."

Spam, Spam,Spam

With all this user information floating around, the possibilities for presence-based advertising on mobile phones are enormous-so much so that governments are taking note. A number of bills are currently under consideration in the United States Congress that would make it illegal to send an unsolicited commercial message to a wireless device.

Still, Zelos Group's McAteer suggests that we're unlikely to find ourselves hit with mobile ads every time we walk past a supermarket. "From a privacy protection perspective, from a systems engineering perspective, and from a business model perspective, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense today," he said. "I think you'll just see promotions embedded in the content, rather than the push advertising model."

One model for such embedded promotions, according to Evolving Systems' Furlong, might be a device that continually streams advertising when it's not being used. "There's a lot of stuff that might start coming over your phone, especially as bandwidth increases," he said. "It could end up being the same as any other sort of mass media, like radio or TV."

An alternate model, Invertix's Diab explains, is the use of marketing bots within the buddy list interface that offer both information and advertising. "A user may have a bot that tells them about movies they may be interested in," he said. "These bots would be based on presence, and they'd sit in your buddy list just like any other buddy. You could have a Washington Post buddy that tells you the latest headlines."

Ultimately, Diab says, the possibilities of presence extend far beyond the obvious. "Knowing whether someone's available and whether they're willing to engage in a conversation or an exchange of information is valuable for all sorts of applications, from multiplayer games to peer-to-peer file sharing," he said. "There are hundreds of applications for presence to be built upon. The sphere is pretty unlimited."

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.