Microsofts Presence Raises Boundary Issues

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2005-03-08

Microsofts Presence Raises Boundary Issues

In San Francisco on Tuesday, Bill Gates announced what the world has been waiting for: presence awareness, to be built into all Microsoft applications. I presume the press release overstated this a bit and was referring only to Microsoft Office applications (but maybe it really would be useful to have presence built into Monster Truck Madness).

Microsoft has tried this before, adding the ability for Microsoft Outlook to indicate whether your MSN IM buddies were online, presumably so you could send them an IM rather than an e-mail. Of course, few people (besides me and folks at Microsoft, that is) have enough people in their Windows Messenger contacts to make this a useful feature. I had it on for about a day and turned it off.

Actually, Bill didnt so much announce new products as remind us that they are forthcoming over the next few months.

Thus began the marketing push intended to sell more servers and client software to companies who dont use much of what they already own. How many companies do you suppose are really using the SharePoint features built into Office XP?

As best as I could tell, all the pieces mentioned during the hour-long global Webcast, hosted from Europe and America, had been talked about previously.

One product, however, has gained a real name, while the others, Live Communications Server and the Live Meeting service, are already well known. Sort of. The new piece, formerly code-named Istanbul, has become Microsoft Office Communicator 2005, an IM client on steroids that apparently wont be useful unless you have access to a Microsoft Live Communications Server.

To read more about Office Communicator 2005, previously code-named Istanbul, click here.

Presence, unified experience, and built-in intelligence are the major things Microsoft says it is bringing to the table. Presence is supposed to let us see what other people are doing, such as whether they are in the office, on the road, or in a meeting, and what the best way is to reach them at that particular place and time.

In short, presence is supposed to let us know whether the people were working with (or for) are someplace where we can easily bother them and, if so, which instrument of distraction should be employed. Do I need to send an IM or an SMS, or start a full-blown video conference?

Alternatively, presence can tell us whether our attempts to reduce a coworkers (and our own) time-on-task would be better directed at someone else.

"Unified experience" describes what it means for your copy of Office Communicator 2005 to provide a single interface for IM, voice telephony, video conferencing, and web conferencing. It also enables a PC-to-phone interface, although Microsoft is not getting into the telephone equipment business.

The built-in intelligence is, as usual, the hard part of the equation. Microsoft has to find a way to make a fairly complex user interface smart enough to look simple, yet capable enough to address user needs. The server has to be capable of remembering user preferences for how they prefer to be contacted and under what circumstances they arent to be interrupted, and then facilitate the ensuing conversations.

However, getting the human factors right is at least as important as the technology Microsoft has created.

Next Page: The pitfalls of presence.

Pitfalls of Presence

How many times have you been happy to be in a place where nobody could bother you? With presence this might still be possible—if your bosses allow it—but even then, people will know youre hiding out.

And not just the people who walk past an empty cube or find a closed office door, but everyone, theoretically, in the entire organization.

If this is the electronic replacement of "face time" which must be spent in the office looking busy in order to earn ones keep, presence isnt such a bad thing.

But what I think it represents is something else, a sort of hyper-presence in which you are required both to be in the office and to be available for a quick IM or video conference with the foreign offices 24 hours a day.

Sure, it may be convenient to do that from home, but wasnt it better when we could get a good nights rest?

Larry King, the talk show host, used to have a routine he did about how "management never sleeps." When a caller would mention his or her employer on Kings overnight radio show, the host would go into a monologue about how, even at 3 a.m., management was watching over the employees. "Management," King would grandly announce, "never sleeps!"

In actual practice, I expect presence to be something else that flows downhill. That is, everyone above you in the food chain will know where you are, but except for your immediate boss you wont know where the corporate chieftains be chillin.

Presence may also have the undesirable (to management) side effect of changing communication that goes up one department, crosses to another department at the senior manager level, and then rolls down the food chain to where real work takes place.

Make it easier for workers in the trenches to find and get in touch with one another and soon well have lateral communication. This would be where one corporate player talks to another player without bosses and chain-of-command getting in the way. This might actually reduce communications bottlenecks, but lessen the ability of management to stay in the middle of everything.

Click here to read more about Microsofts real-time communications product suite, including Office Communicator 2005.

The PC-to-phone interface is likely to find many fans. Everyone I know who has a VOIP telephone integrated with his or her Windows desktop just loves it. They like having voicemail appear with all their other messages, playable through their computer speakers without their having to punch commands into the telephone keypad. They also like the tight integration they get between their personal telephone directories and the corporate telephone book.

Ive made a lot of fun of the announcements, but this only goes to show how difficult computer-aided collaboration really is. If the technical aspect of maintaining a system presence for every user isnt enough, if the challenge of making a PC network and a PBX work together isnt enough, we still have all the human factors with which to contend.

Tuesdays announcements are interesting. They will be a challenge for enterprises to implement and probably make sense more for new installations than as retrofits for old ones. A company where I used to work did VOIP implementation with strong desktop capabilities when they moved from one building to another and had to buy a new PBX and servers anyway. I cant imagine a retrofit would have worked nearly as well.

The social issues Ive lampooned here will eventually be worked out. But they will require some new thinking about what the employer-employee relationship is supposed to be and when work stops and private time begins. This technology has the potential to slide the balance way toward the employers side.

This is not technology that people will chide IT departments for not implementing right away. I doubt your CEO will inquire about Live Communications Server with the same urgency that he uses to push "money-saving" Linux. Still, if Microsoft gets this right, a tighter link between computers, communications and users could be very profitable all the way around.

Contributing Editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. Before joining, David was executive editor of ZDNet AnchorDesk and has been a columnist for PC World, ComputerWorld and other publications. Former executive producer of DEMO and other industry events, he also operates a technology consulting and event management business. A full bio and contact information may be found on his Web site,

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