Microsofts Presence Raises Boundary Issues

Opinion: The new real-time communications software has the potential to be used for good-or to be invasive and annoying.

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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifTo 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.