Opinion: The ability to use "presence" technology to locate others is more likely to be a benefit to collaboration than a threat to personal freedom.
The recent columns by Mary Jo Foley and myself on Microsofts announcement of "presence" as a major new product feature have drawn considerable reader comment, mostly from people who dont seem to understand what presence is all about. I have received almost as many e-mails from people who say that I dont understand.
But my favorites are those from readers who begin with something like, "Now, I dont want you to think Im a conspiracy buff" and then go on to explain how they dont want "the government" to know where they are all the time.
What many of these people dont seem to realize is that if the government really wants to know where you are, they already have ample tools.
Id be willing to bet that most of the people who will be touched by Microsofts presence features anytime soon are already leaving a very nice trail. These information workers already have cellular telephones and use credit or ATM cards rather than cash.
Current-generation cellular phones include GPS receivers that can send your location back to the phone company and from there, well
my police friends say that warrants make the world go round. Even without GPS, the cellular network can still often place you to within a few blocks based on signal strength and triangulation.
As for bank and credit card records, many people leave as many of those in their wake as Hansel and Gretel left breadcrumbs in the woods.
For the most part, however, I think the paranoid are just flattering themselves. Why would the men in the black helicopters care even a little about what theyre doing? And, besides, given some backlighting, almost all helicopters look black at a distance, secret mission or not.
Governmental surveillance of the citizenry is not what presence technology is about. Its not even about our bosses knowing where we are at all times. But it is an important foundation for improving the effectiveness of information workers, provided its implemented properly.
Click here to read Mary Jo Foleys column on Microsofts "presence" plans.
Difficulty of implementation is a common theme these days. People sometimes ask me why it seems like the pace of innovation has slowed down so much. The simple answer is that all the easy stuff has been done, and we now have a huge installed base to think about. It would doubtless be easier to innovate if every five years we could trash backward compatibility and start fresh. Customers wouldnt accept such a plan, however, so we are forced to innovate in ways that maintain compatibility.
As for the easy stuff being done, tomorrows innovations, like presence, require many pieces to fit together. The sometimes complex underlying technology must find expression through applications and programming interfaces if its to reach customers. Bringing all these things together is hard work and it stretches development and implementation times.
Microsofts presence technology is intended to help people work smarter and even faster. It is designed to help coworkers collaborate more easily. Initially, I believe this will take a form much like instant messaging, but available from within applications. In the long term, I expect presence will be an important part of tomorrows "smart enterprise."
Depending on how this plays out, it could also be useful for a variety of other organizations, including social networking or other interest/affinity groups.
Read details here about AOLs version of "presence" in Outlook.
The key will be tying presence to search technology that allows your computer to present information and contacts that are relevant to what youre working on in something close to real time.
There are privacy and business-secrets issues to be dealt with. There should be limits both on what information a user offers (such as current projects, documents, etc.) and who the user can match with.
A search engine could be used to crawl the corporate document library, looking for people who are working on the same sorts of things but arent aware of one anothers efforts. Or it might automatically build a list of in-house subject matter experts from the documents each had created. Based on certain rules, when the search engine found a match it could generate a message informing one or both users. The presence system could then be used to create a connection between users who otherwise wouldnt know one another.
I dont see online presence being used as a surveillance tool, and as an adjunct to instant messaging, its not all that interesting. But tie presence to a system-level awareness of what were working on and it could be a real help in finding people we ought to be working with. This could become our most important, and powerful, collaboration tool.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.