Wireless Wonders

No news, just comment about mobile phones and services, from a veteran practitioner...3G, GPRS, WAP, Bluetooth, WiFi, etc...

Monday, May 30, 2005

The importance of Presence and Push-to-X...

The specifications for the latest 3G networks/handsets include recommendations for a generic presence capability, which is essentially part of a wider infrastructure evolution called IMS (IP Multimedia System), which is an area I am working in at the moment.

Any user of an Instant Messaging service will understand presence, which is the indication of buddy states, like "online", "offline", "busy", "do not disturb" etc.

The presence capability in next-generation 3G handsets (and 2.5G ones) is a service enabler, which means that other services can use it to enable advanced services. Instant Messaging is an obvious example. Another is Push-To-Talk (PTT).

In addition to presence, there is a companion service enabler called group management, which provides buddy and group management (e.g. add contacts, create groups, etc.)

Some vendors and operators have taken a view that presence is potentially a service in its own right that is chargeable, although this seems unlikely. However, it does depend on how the service is introduced and what the handset capabilities will be.

For example, one idea, which seems widely discussed, is the active address book. Instead of the current address books, which are merely electronic versions of their paper predecessors, the new ones will be "presence aware". This means that scanning the list of entries will yield presence information, if possible, for each entrant. Hence, we shall be able to see who is "online", "offline" and so on.

Presence information is potentially very rich and includes device capabilities too, so we would be able to see not only who's "online", but whether or not their device can receive a picture message or a video call.

Because the presence capability is generic, any service can potentially hook in to its network, so we could imagine a distinctly English service that enables us to see what the weather is like for each of our buddies in their current location. (The English talk about the weather a lot, which is more to do with social ice-breaking than any real interest in meteorology.)

The widespread penetration of presence has the potential for a profound transformation of mobile usage and habits, which is why it is being explored as a service in its own right. However, presence information usually leads directly to the use of other services, which means it is more likely to surface with the introduction of a symbiotic service, like PTT, which is probably the service that is attracting major attention from operators globally right now.

The point about presence is that it brings us closer to the contacts in our address book. Instead of a name being just another passive entry in the address book, it now becomes something nearer to the person it represents. Instant Messaging users will already know of the "sensing" phenomenon. When we see a buddy "online" in the contact list, we sense (feel) the person at the other end, simply because we know that they're there.

This sense of immediacy will lead to a greater urge to communicate, or connect. If we see that our buddy is online, then we might initiate direct communication, such as texting or an IM session. Or, we might access outstanding email messages or voicemail, or check their latest blog entries: all of which are examples of connecting. Within the emerging landscape of community-forming mobile services, connecting will be an increasingly important mode of mobile usage as distinct from communicating (person-to-person).

The urge to communicate (or connect) will be greatly enhanced by the new breed of "push-to-X" services. PTT will undoubtedly become commonplace, but others will follow hot on its heels, such as push-to-view, which is instant image sharing. The point here is that these services are instant - just one push of a button away. This new modality for mobile communications is going to prove irresistible.

Presence and push-to-X are generic service modalities that will have major impact on mobile device usage in the coming years. It is currently my view, along with others, that these capabilities, perhaps more than any other currently being introduced, will have the greatest impact on the transformation of mobile devices from telephones to personal-networking devices.

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