Line56 published an article today talking about presence becoming a more important part of IBM's collaborative environment. The article starts off with a quick 'n dirty definition of presence as "the technology that allows you to see when other people are online." That's actually selling the vision short. The engineers and designers working on grandiose plans for embedded presence in business applications see this as a way to get much more complete status information about your contact circle than simply whether a person is online.
In the technologists' dream future, people will be able to set their status in a constantly changing flow to let others know whether and how to get in touch with them. You could set peer level groupings (such as family members, doctors, professional services people you are expecting to hear from, business colleagues, and strangers or unidentified callers). Then you could set your status level to indicate that you are open to receiving communications or in a do-not-disturb mode. If reachable, you could direct the person to the most appropriate channel... Cell phone, office phone, home phone, instant messenger, email, and so on.
The technological ability to implement this kind of functionality is the easy part (any technical implementation is easy for the person who doesn't have to do it). The business/economic model that would support interest in promoting the capabilities seems evident as well. Think of what LinkedIn could do if they established themselves as the central repository of contact information tying in to contact peer groups and communication levels for business people. It's a potential gold mine.
The really hard part of the equation to solve is the practical aspects of getting a large number of people to micromanage their status levels and constantly shifting preferences. My mind conjures up the obnoxious character that Tony Roberts played in Woody Allen's "Play It Again, Sam." He was constantly interrupting his social and work flow to call his answering service to let them know where he was and how he could be reached. Ah, the glorious days of 1972 when we had answering services and manual call forwarding to local business numbers or pay phones!
All the above is just preamble to my main point, however. The Line56 article emphasizes the use of presence in facilitating ad-hoc collaboration. This is rightly used in most articles, presentations, and discussions as the obvious business example when people want to play up the benefits of integrated presence. But it got me thinking... Is there a place for presence in the world of formally scheduled webinars (such as educational or marketing broadcasts to a large audience)?
There is, and some webinar technology vendors are just starting to experiment with ways to leverage it. Of course we can start with the classic audience list, visible to presenters on their consoles. This is very basic presence and says who has joined the conference in listening mode. You can add to that status indicators such as mood indicators, "hand raising", or other flags that audience members can change. Most of the big name vendors have some form of audience presence like this.
The next level of presence is a bit sneakier. It uses automatic status indicators that the audience doesn't know they are generating. Several vendors have implemented feedback indicators that show whether a pushed slide or document has been received by audience members. This helps an attentive presenter pace his or her presentation to account for latency delays. Citrix's GoToWebinar product takes this one step further by also indicating whether audience members are keeping focus on the presentation window and whether they are interacting with the console.
Brainshark deals exclusively with recorded webinars served up on demand to requesters. They made sure to build in an option for the webinar host to display a presence indicator so that an interested viewer has a way to interact with a live sales or support representative while watching the recorded content.
One area I haven't seen presence well implemented is in assisting audience members during registration or login to an event. This is usually handled by a piece of small print included at the end of a lot of text in an invitation email or landing page information. "If you experience problems, please call <xxx> or email us at <yyy>." People having difficulty with an interactive process have a hard time remembering where in the instruction set they might have seen such a note, and it completely pulls them out of their process.
This could be implemented in a much more sophisticated way if the technology vendor gave their clients the ability to establish an interactive presence indicator integrated right into the registration or login process. "Having trouble? Click here to speak with a live support rep. Or let us call you on your phone." And so on. The indication of presence from the hosting company is comforting and valuable to the audience.
Ad hoc collaborative web meetings are not the only type of interactivity that can benefit from new applications of presence technology. Conferencing vendors would be well served by offering it as an option in scheduled one-to-many online seminars.