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Launching Voice Over Internet Protocol

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IP-Happy Providers Want Your 'Presence’

September 13, 2004

By Leslie Ellis

One of the more curious terms dangling around discussions about advanced communications services is this notion of “presence.”

If you hang out with the people launching voice-over-Internet protocol, or with the people figuring out how to thread services “through the silos” (of video, voice and data bundles), you’ve probably heard someone say it.

If you haven’t, here’s a simple usage example, from a recent batch of notes: “What we need is a network that can do presence, for end-devices that are presence-aware.”

If you had heard that sentence, rather than read it, you might start envisioning a network with gift-wrapped boxes hanging from it. That would be a colorful, if incorrect, mental response.


In a broad definition, “presence” is the managing of inbound and outbound communications, on any device, based on your availability, the capabilities of your devices and your preferences.

It’s the “instant” in “instant messaging,” because it lets your people know if you’re attached to the network, so they can ping you live.

In general, presence carries three attributes: Am I on the network? How am I on the network (cell phone, PC, gadget)? Am I available for communications at this time?

In a general sense, “presence” does for your talking life what group calendars do for your working life: It gives more people more information about your availability, as stipulated by you.

Who you are, and where you are — on your laptop, home PC, work PC, blackberry, cell phone, work phone, or TV — gets linked with the technologies of “presence.”

When people talk about presence, they usually start by likening it to instant messaging and buddy lists, except broader, across more devices, with more than just text.

Think video IM here, or “click to talk” telephone.

Or, to switch platforms completely, think IM on TV, video IM on TV, caller ID on TV — that fare.

So, to imagine its potential, it helps to start by daydreaming about a buddy list on steroids. Or an instant messaging service, or any other little box on your computer screen that tells you when people you know are “on.” What started as text messages could expand into a lot more, presence proponents say.


Technically, “presence” is usually within lurking distance of “SIP,” or “Session Initiation Protocol.” SIP is the underbody of services such as Vonage, AT&T’s CallVantage, and other such applications.

(Aside translation: Lately, more and more people seem to be referring to these services, and their ilk, as “over-the-top applications.” In practice, they seem more “parasitic” than over the top, in that they feed, undetected, from the bandwidth of existing cable and digital subscriber line modems. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.)

In a nutshell, SIP assumes smart end-points, attached to a network that doesn’t need to be so smart (full translations are available in the Feb. 23 and March 8 editions).

Initially, that didn’t bode so well with cable operators, who favor the idea of a smart network serving smart devices.

That’s less of an issue now, as more and more operators work to harmonize SIP-based technologies, including presence, into efforts like PacketCable Multimedia.

Two methods are currently vying to be the oomph of presence: “SIMPLE” and “XMPP.”

SIMPLE stands for SIP for Instant Messaging & Presence Leveraging Extensions. (One proponent of SIMPLE actually calls it “a clearly contrived acronym.”)

XMPP stands for Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol. Both are vying to be “the one,” from an interoperability perspective.

Generally speaking, both are ways to link “clients” (end devices) and systems to the infrastructure of presence. SIMPLE is an extension of SIP; XMPP is XML-based, and commercialized by Denver-based Jabber Inc. Both groups are housed within the overall Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Happily, the matter of who wins is beyond the scope of this translation.

The hard part for operators who may want to offer presence-based services — Comcast talks a lot about it — will be explaining it to consumers.

Try describing “presence” to your parents, or your techno-uninterested friends. I did. It didn’t go well. My efforts got clumped into “fancy phone stuff that I don’t need” and “why would I want anyone to know that much about me?”


Along those lines, one of the most common uses of presence, so far, is “invisibility” — where you continue to receive, but appear to be offline to particular people, or your entire contact list.

Therefore, “presence” will likely need the help of good marketers before it will thrive.

That could mean that “presence” is one of those techniques that grows useful in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. Velcro was a NASA invention, for astronauts to use in anti-gravity situations. Today, it’s a household item. ADSL was invented for interactive television. So was Sun’s Java platform, for that matter.

In the meantime, you can still let your calls go into voice mail. They can’t see you deliberately shunting the call.


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