Presence interoperability marches forward, with or without Microsoft

Presence software could move from fledgling to mainstream technology once suppliers get on board with federating (making products interoperable). Most are cooperating, but fingers are pointing to Microsoft as the one not playing nice in the sandbox.

Last week, my MSN Messenger client suddenly popped out a message inviting me to upgrade my software and begin swapping instant messages with my Yahoo buddies. Federated instant messaging at last! Great news - if only I had any Yahoo buddies. It will be even greater news on a personal level once Microsoft adds AOL's AIM into the mix (I have a lot of buddies on that instant messaging platform), but right now it is just MSN and Yahoo.

As a big-time instant messaging user, I should have been celebrating this giant step forward in instant messaging interoperability. Instead, I became troubled by a similar but major business communications problem. There has been so much speculation lately about which company will eventually be the dominant unified communications player – Cisco or Microsoft – that attention has been diverted from a far more pressing problem affecting business users today: federated presence.

Presence software, a key component of unified communications, collects information about an end-user's availability status and communications capabilities. If we are using the same presence system, it tells me whether my buddy is available to chat and lets me know the best way to reach him. Is he using a SIP phone, e-mail, a softphone? Is he on instant messenger at a particular time? Does he have web collaboration or videoconferencing enabled on his system? Meanwhile, presence tells my buddy the same information about me. Presence is intended to make that annoying game of phone tag a thing of the past.

Getting disparate presence products to share information bi-directionally – so-called federating – is key to giving this technology the traction it needs to become a ubiquitous communications tool that makes life easier for network managers and end-users alike. Federated presence would remove borders between end-users and clients, co-workers located in different branches, or even family members and friends in different locations.

Imagine a world where Verizon talked only to Verizon, Sprint to Sprint, Cingular to Cingular, and so on. As it stands today, individual products work in these kinds of proprietary silos, allowing end-users to communicate exclusively with other end-users on the same system.

Moreover, as presence is extended to such things as mobile phones, documents and e-mail, federation will become even more critical.

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Read more on federating presence. Learn about the Cisco vs. Microsoft battle for unified communications.
Fortunately, there is a great incentive to make these products work as harmoniously as the phone system. According to Yankee Group, the total voice market today is about $18bn, and there are 350 million business desktops out there. Assuming only $3 per client, that would translate to $1bn. Once you add in e-mail, unified messaging, videoconferencing, mobility and the like, the total market for unified communications – which uses presence software as its glue – has the potential to be $30bn or more.

"For presence to be successful, all of the products have to be able to communicate with each other," said Yankee Group's Vanessa Alvarez. "Network managers are the people who would complain about the products not communicating with each other. It would take a lot of custom development to make the products interoperable."

Suppliers such as Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, Alcatel, Interwise, Mitel, Siemens and Nortel offer presence products, but none of them can currently share information with the others out of the box.

However, all of the major presence suppliers are meeting regularly at the SIP Forum's SIPIT (Session Initiation Protocol Interoperability Tests) events to get their products to federate – share information bi-directionally – and, for the most part, there has been steady progress toward federation among the group.

According to Cisco, which earlier this year demonstrated interoperability between IBM Lotus SameTime 7.5 and Cisco Unified Call Manager 5.0, the technology to make disparate presence platforms interoperable already exists because the products are all inheritently SIP-enabled. It is up to the individual suppliers to choose whether they want to participate in interoperability testing and bi-directional sharing of presence information and finally flip the switch.

"It is not a technical question, it is a business question. A lot of what people want is available today," said Cisco's Cullen Jennings, who is an area director for an IETF working group that focuses on SIP/SIMPLE and interoperability. "The problem is whether the suppliers want to do this."

As it stands today, Microsoft is creating a stalemate when it comes to ubiquitously federated presence. Microsoft is participating in interoperability testing, but the company plans to stop short of bi-directional information sharing. When it comes to sharing data with Microsoft's presence, Jennings said, it is "check in but do not check out."

Considering that there are two camps forming right now, one around Cisco and the other around Microsoft, Microsoft's cooperation in federating its product so that it shares information bi-directionally with other products is critical for network managers and for ease of use among end-users.

"Microsoft has more or less said that at this point, all point data should be fed up to their systems, and that should be the only source of presence data," Jennings said.

Microsoft's angle on federating makes sense for Microsoft, but it is not one that promotes market harmony. According to Microsoft, all presence identities would do best if based on Active Directory, a strategy intended to make the lives of network managers easier because each end-user carries that identity with him wherever he goes throughout a company's vast network. By contrast, each time a new device such as another PBX is installed on that same network and uses a different identity for each end-user, it creates a management headache because more and more identities need to be juggled.

"The way IT people want to look at presence is that they want it to be deeply associated with each end-user name at the company, and they do not want to end up with multiple identities," said Zig Serafin, general manager of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group. "Just like I have a single e-mail account, network managers want end-users to have a single presence account."

Do you have an opinion about how federation should work and about the progress the presence suppliers have made toward making their products interoperable? How important is federating to your organisation? Let us know your opinion by writing to me at [email protected] Or visit our news page and cast your vote in our unified communications poll.

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