Some Absences in Presence

Opinion: IM networks want to provide presence, but they should provide interoperability first.

AOL has embarked in a program to add "presence" features to as many blogging, media, and social networking sites as possible. People using these sites will be able to advertise their presence to other users, even if they arent logged onto the site at the moment, thanks to their AOL Instant Messaging client. These sites will essentially become gateways into AOL IM.

Theres nothing wrong with that, except that Yahoo and MSN will doubtless do the same thing. This will leave users to contend with three presence providers when all we need is a one.

"Presence," in case youve missed it, is all the rage these days. At least with Microsoft and AOL, who want the personal status information generated by their IM clients to be available to other applications and services. Thus, information about your availability could be distributed through a variety of means, like online dating, auction sites, and e-mail clients, among others. How we have lived without this for so long, I cannot imagine, but I will get to that in a moment.

Built as it is atop instant messaging, presence technology seems likely to divide the world into three camps: AOL, Yahoo, and MSN. It will be up to users of these networks—you and me—to make them interoperate since the IM companies themselves are more interested in competitive advantage than in doing whats right for their customers.

/zimages/3/28571.gifAOL launches a grass-roots presence campaign. Click here to read more.

That we must connect to three or more different instant messaging services in order to keep in touch with co-workers, family and friends remains one of the great failures of the Internet era. While there has been a great deal of noise over the years about making these systems work together, Im still forced to run separate clients for the three IM services I use most often. Each has a different subset of my contacts and if I want to talk to them all, I must log into all three networks.

By being logged onto instant messaging, I am making my own location and status known to my IM contacts. Likewise, I can look at the IM client software and tell if someone I need to talk with is someplace—desk or wireless handset usually—where they are likely to answer my IM. That presence information saves many a telephone call and is what makes IM such an efficient medium for so many users.

Presence information and the ability to easily contact people is so valuable that that I am willing to run three separate clients—AIM, MSN, and Yahoo—to stay in touch with a wide circle of business and personal contacts.

Yes, I am aware of the multi-service IM clients, like Trillian and Fire. While these dont solve the problem of IM interoperability, they do hide it from users. But they also hide something else: The advertising that the networks sell to underwrite the "free" IM service.

While Id be happy to pay for IM service, until I am offered that option I feel honor-bound to use the service-specific clients and accept their ads. Not that I click on them, mind you, but I still feel like Im holding up my end of the bargain.

As much as I appreciate the value that instant messaging offers, I am not thrilled that AOL is embarking on a divide-and-conquer strategy that will require AIM membership if users want their presence to be noted by the services its signing up. Even if these arent exclusive agreements, it continues the sad history of users needing multiple IM accounts if they want to been "seen" and available to the widest set of contacts.

What we need is IM and presence interoperability, allowing people to exist with only a single IM account. Were not getting it because the IM services would rather use their networks as competitive weapons against one another than to do the most good for customers.

Of course, no discussion of presence is complete without my expressing the concern that as useful as I find instant messaging to be, that perhaps embedding it and my status information into e-mail clients and online services is taking things too far.

If I want to know someones online status, existing IM clients work quite nicely, even if I need three of them to keep tabs on everyone I talk to online. Adding VOIP to IM even allows me to tell if someone is likely to answer the "phone" before I call.

Microsoft continues to promote the idea of presence information within Outlook and, in the future, other applications. One reason this hasnt worked very well is because Microsoft doesnt have access to AIM and Yahoo presence information, only MSNs. This means all my contacts would need to be logged into MSN Messenger if I wanted to see their presence information in Outlook.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about Microsofts plan to build presence into applications.

Now, I can be a persuasive guy, but I am not so persuasive that everyone I want to talk to will get another IM client just so I can use Outlook instead of a network-specific client to IM them.

Im also not wild about providing presence information to services I am not specifically logged onto at the moment, like blogging sites. While I try to be easily available to friends and coworkers, Id just as soon everyone else not know where I am or what Im doing. For them, e-mail is a fine way to contact me.

Nevertheless, interoperability is a good thing and IM networks should long ago have learned to talk to one another. As we become more dependent on them to share our personal status information, seamless connectivity becomes all the more important. If the IM providers want to take us to this next level of ubiquitous presence, they should do so by first by making their existing IM networks accessible to each other.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

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