Striving For IM ‘Presence’ in Enterprise Apps

With its promise of real-time communication and cost savings, instant messaging should be a darling of the corporate world, but its potential for abuse, its reputation as a haven for the pre-teen crowd, and its reliance on “buddy lists” from consumer software outfits make the most popular IM applications seem more unbuttoned than a casual Friday.

There is a movement afoot in the software world to take the main benefit of instant messaging (the ability to see if someone is available online and then message them over IM), which is called “presence,” and incorporate it into software applications used by enterprises. The idea is to get instant messaging off of buddy lists and into applications where it will be the most benefit to business users.

Incorporating presence into personal information managers such as Outlook or portal/directory systems like Siebel sounds like a relatively simple idea, but nothing is as simple as it seems in instant messaging.

The most popular instant messaging platforms today are the three disparate systems of AOL, Yahoo and MSN. Not only does this complicate matters for consumers using IM, but businesses may support one platform, or none at all, leaving employees to choose from the three and creating a miscommunication mess.

Matt Smith is the CEO of PresenceWorks, which for three years has been trying to open up instant messaging for use in a number of applications. A year and a half ago, PresenceWorks signed a deal with AOL to integrate with its IM system. The result is the green icon many people use in their e-mail signature that tracks if they are online and invites people to instant message them. It’s the most ubiquitous sign out there of what PresenceWorks is trying to do.

Smith compares instant messaging to e-mail in the days before SMTP — the protocol that allows different servers to transfer e-mail messages. He remains confident that the differing IM protocols will get together, opening the door for worldwide IM, and increasing the value proposition for adding presence to applications.

“That’s the big, fascinating question,” Smith said of the prospects for unified IM. “I think it’s going to be answered in the next year and a half.”

While adding presence to applications may ultimately have the most value for corporations, Smith believes consumer Web sites will, somewhat ironically, be the first movers in the space.

Consumer sites like eBay and are basically directories of people waiting to be contacted, Smith said. By adding an instant messaging icon to peoples’ names of listings, the value of presence could quickly become obvious.

From consumer Web sites to enterprise applications may not be much of a stretch. What Siebel and eBay have in common is they are both directories at heart. Additionally, enterprise applications like Siebel could push the popular IM platforms to work together.

Opening business applications up to presence will also create new problems. There is currently no group-selective Away message. Smith said he believes options will have to be created so people can display Away messages to certain groups while communicating with others. “It will take responsible companies and early adopters to figure out intrusion,” he said.

With purse strings still tight, enterprises may also look beyond incorporating presence because, said Michael Sampson, an editor and consulting analyst with Ferris Research, the ROI is unproven as of yet. Most of the advantages of having presence incorporated into business applications have to do with teamwork, speed, and efficiency, which aren’t always easy to quantify.

“Another potential source of value is where work gets done quicker because team members work on their next actions depending on whether others who can help are currently online,” Sampson said. “Or where work gets routed to team members based on presence and availability.”

Sampson said that companies active in the instant messaging and collaboration space are making the most noise about integrating IM in applications, led by IBM’s Lotus division.

Lotus Instant Messaging, formerly known as Sametime, offers its users a number of ways to integrate presence into WebSphere portlets and Lotus Notes/Domino applications. PeopleSoft has been working on integrating presence from various IM networks and products into its portal solution and other business offerings.

The Big Three of third-party IM are also involved in projects. Microsoft is expected to announce a platform to compete with Lotus, and its RTC server will also integrate presence across a range of apps. Yahoo recently announced a deal with BEA to integrate Yahoo presence into WebLogic applications. AOL also has plans in the area.

Because the biggest instant messaging clients are still in divided camps, Sampson said businesses looking to integrate presence into applications will stick to simple requirements, such as having only the presence of internal employees on their network show. Trying to tie in third-party platforms like AOL, MSN and Yahoo will lead to increased complexity in the short to medium term, he said, forcing enterprises to deploy a presence aggregator, such as PresenceWorks, to bring them together.

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