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