Real-time apps

A sales engineer is at a customer site demonstrating a new release of a product. The customer’s CTO asks a question the sales engineer can’t answer, so he opens the presence-enabled corporate directory on his laptop and sees that the product manager and technical team leader are online and available.

The sales engineer highlights their names and with one click invites them into an instant-message session. In seconds, the question has been answered to the customer’s satisfaction and the sales engineer has learned a new feature of the release.

Later, the account executive and customer are negotiating terms of the purchase. From a Web-based order entry form, the account executive sees an alert that the customer is behind on payment for the original license purchase. In a corner of the screen, green icons appear next to the name of the customer’s accounts payable manager and the vendor’s accounts receivable agent.

They all engage in a text chat that results in the customer’s account being brought up to date via wire transfer, and the order being placed.

This type of collaboration, coming to a network near you in the not-too-distant future, will be based on technology that adds presence-awareness to common business applications.

Some early types of real-time collaboration are available today, but Ferris Research Inc. predicts that presence will become widely used in corporate environments over the next three to five years.

So how does it work? The good news is that getting from application, departmental and corporate silos to a fully integrated real-time corporation based on presence will require incremental changes rather than a major upheaval in enterprise systems.

Many of the underlying concepts have been around for a while. For example, IP networks connecting systems and transmitting messages by way of proprietary or standards-based protocols is basic. IT departments already use tools that continuously monitor and report states.

When presence-awareness is compiled into an application, an association is made between the creator of the file and the file itself. A few such “presence-embedded” applications are already available, with more expected by year-end.

For example, Microsoft Office 11 in the presence of a Windows 2003 Server and Microsoft’s real-time collaboration server will have presence capabilities in virtually all of its applications, without IT or user involvement.

Presence-embedded PowerPoint or Word documents, for example, will associate the primary author with a file. This will permit another person viewing the file to see if the author is online and available. Should a question arise, the viewer could click on the author’s name and initiate a variety of collaborative meetings: a two-way or multiparty instant-message session, with or without application sharing.

If speakers, microphones and cameras were connected, a condition that would be indicated by icons near their names or by colors, the participants also would have the option to add voice and video. If a PBX is linked to the productivity application server, end users also could request a multiway telephone conversation.

Another example of presence making an effect on an enterprise application is PeopleSoft’s Enterprise Portal 8.8. By combining PeopleSoft’s Intelligent Context Manager with instant messaging, the software essentially detects, based on who you are and what you are doing, what you need to know and which expert you need to contact.

A presence-aware, supply-chain management portal based on PeopleSoft’s latest technology could accelerate communications and ultimately increase the pace of decision making. If a manufacturer’s parts supply was reaching a critical level, the person or automated system would need to place an order for additional parts. What if the parts supplier had a new model available, or a shortage of the parts the manufacturer seeks? The person placing the request would need to review technical specifications and perhaps see the new or replacement part before ordering a different item. Having presence embedded into the order system would provide virtual customer assistance or sales support.

Presence-enabled or presence-aware applications require some investment on IT’s part. To signal on-site presence with an IBM/Lotus Sametime server, for example, requires a Web master add a few lines of code (Sametime Links) into a standard HTML file. Any application can be rendered presence-aware with the installation of new presence-enhancing commercial software tools from vendors such as Instant Technologies and Advanced Reality.

The result is a relationship in which applications display presence information published by an enterprise presence server. Desktop agents monitor user states – offline, online and available, online and unavailable.

One of the immediate needs will be for a presence manager to designate when different presence states are shown and to whom. Initially, most developers of presence-aware systems expect users to put rules around their own presence. For example, an employee might only want to be “seen” by subordinates during work hours, but might allow the boss to reach him after hours. In a presence-enabled corporate directory, entire departments might elect to have their presence limited to employees in the same department.

Perey is president of Perey Research & Consulting in Placerville, Calif. The company provides business development consulting services and conducts market research on the use of video in enterprise. She can be reached at