However, Microsoft doesnt have a monopoly on such accusations. Perhaps another recent example, also involving communications technology, will be instructive as to what will and wont undo civilization as weve come to know it.
I am talking about Caller ID, which as far as I can tell has nothing to do with Microsoft. Sending automatic number-identification data with our phone calls was, according to critics, the telecom industrys plan to subjugate humanity.
Thankfully, humanity proved resilient and somehow managed to survive.
Detractors said Caller ID threatened to undo social norms by allowing people to see who was calling before they answered the telephone. Or because when people dialed a wrong number and just hung up, theyd get an immediate callback from the aggrieved recipient of the first call.
Companies were supposed to start logging every incoming call and providing those numbers to their automated telemarketing. I forget all the charges leveled against Caller ID, but the only one that really held water—and still does—is that the service is too expensive for what you get.
On the other hand, looking at the Caller ID display is useful to see who called while I was away without having to check the voice mail. Its also handy when I do want to avoid junk calls, some of which would make it past the TeleZapper if I were to answer. Easier to let the answering machine pick up the line and trigger the TeleZapper.
Caller ID is also useful because of the control it gives me over whom I drop everything to talk to while I am trying to get work done.
Revealing my caller identity when I call Pizza Hut allows them to pull up my address, credit information, and even my last order before they so much as say hello. When I am in an especially foul mood, this allows me to order food by hitting the speed dial, snapping "Send the usual," and hanging up. Sometimes limiting human interaction is the best option.
As Ive said, Caller ID is in wide use today and nobody thinks about it very much. Over time, I think "presence" will likewise become no big deal.
Presence is a key to Microsofts vision of the "new world of work." It supports just-in-time collaboration across a global network. This should push forward the laudable goal of allowing people to work wherever they are, whenever they want. Coupled with videoconferencing and video instant messages, presence also might reduce the addiction some companies have to "face time" in the office.
People who use instant messaging in business already benefit from the ability to see who is available and who isnt, a form of presence that has been available for a number of years. Being able to ask a quick question in a loosely synchronous manner—I send when I get a free moment, you answer when you have one—is a lot more efficient than e-mail or picking up the telephone. It also reduces idle chatter, though IM can still be a problem for attention-challenged people like me.
Presence technology is much like the addition of instant-messaging technology across an entire desktop. Instead of using a separate IM client, messaging would appear within the apps themselves.
We can argue over whether this is or isnt more useful than a stand-alone IM client, but it probably wont be a big problem for people who choose not to use it. Microsoft can be expected to still provide a way to look at a "friends" list and send a message by clicking, just as we do today.
Presence may be most interesting to large, widely dispersed organizations that need to better capture information and experience and make them available more widely. Microsoft has already demonstrated a prototype desktop in which users are able to find others who are working on the same sorts of projects, based on content analysis rather than the corporate org chart.
That sort of contact could be very useful and could potentially extend outside corporate firewalls and make something like LinkedIn and other social networks actually useful.
Properly managed, presence could actually reduce the number of interruptions we face each day. If the desktop could monitor what were doing, it could intelligently decide who should be able to interrupt us and whose request should be delayed.
Having presence built into apps would make it easier to share context along with a question or comment. Firing off a question from within Microsoft Word, for example, might also pass a copy of the relevant information and trigger a collaboration session in which both users could both see the document in question.
It would take more than presence to make this work, but presence is a start. Or maybe its closer to the finish, since most of the other pieces are in place, if not yet easy to use or widely implemented. (I am thinking about SharePoint here.)
If the introduction isnt properly managed, I am sure having presence technology suddenly arrive in someones work life could be, to use the vernacular, "a royal pain." But what Microsoft is talking about today is just the beginning, a necessary step toward a future in which computers do much more to bridge the information and productivity gaps they have unwittingly helped create.
Like Caller ID before, presence will be debated for a while, but will soon become just another tool to be used where it makes sense.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at email@example.com.