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Does Presence really matter?

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Is the idea of “presence” really one of the next steps in communications applications, or is it just a fancy way of not having to answer your phone?

Alec Saunders, one of the founders of VoIP presence software startup iotum, definitely hopes it’s the former, and not just because his company wants to make a buck off the idea. In personal appearances as well as his well-read blog, Saunders is a champion of the Voice 2.0 idea, using applications to move the world of communicating past busy signals and voice mail.

We caught up with Alec for a quick email Q-and-A about presence, iotum and blogging, which follows after the jump.

Paul Kapustka: Why do we need to solve the “presence” problem?

Alec Saunders: Two words: telephone tag. Did you know that some studies have shown that the probability of actually making a connection with a human being when you pick up the phone is less than 20 percent? Presence helps solve this problem by letting you know the availability of the other party to take your call, before the call gets made. Reach more people with fewer calls… sounds like a winning equation to me!

Paul Kapustka: How much a barrier is social inertia — people not wanting to make themselves available?

Alec Saunders: Privacy is definitely an issue, but our observation has been that the fear isn’t of “big brother”, but rather it is unrestricted access. How many people do you know that turn off IM, or always appear to be offline? And naturally, that’s one of the problems we specifically tried to address with Talk-Now. [Editor’s note: Talk-Now is a presence app for Blackberrys that lets others see if you are available for a call, and vice versa.]

Paul Kapustka: Is red-yellow-green enough granularity (for now)?


Alec Saunders: For now, I think yes. Remember, if you have access to the yellow [interrupt is OK] state on Talk-Now, you also get access to other information (in a meeting, etc.). But if we need more states, we’ll add them as users ask.

Paul Kapustka: How did Iotum get started, and how is it going to make money?

Alec Saunders: Iotum got started by a couple of wild-eyed (or wild-haired, in Howard’s case) guys who figured that VoIP was going to usher in some exciting and interesting changes in the voice market. We knew applications would be big, and our first business plan focused on providing web services [to the] telcos. Nobody would finance that in 2003, so we picked a subset of that functionality, and built the context driven telephony application we had envisioned as part of the service we wanted to deliver.

Fast forward to today… our business plan is to deliver, for free, a great mobile presence application to handsets beginning with BlackBerry but ultimately extending to any Symbian or Windows Mobile handset. We’ll make money from additional presence enabled applications that depend on that infrastructure.

Paul Kapustka: How do you find time to run a company and blog so much?

Alec Saunders: First, we really believe in the value of blogging, and doing it actively. Blogging has really been our only consistent marketing tool. It’s generated tremendous visibility and returns for us. And second, I have a great friend and partner in Howard Thaw. We each have different roles to play at iotum, but unlike a lot of startups with one founder, our partnership allows a little more flexibility.

14 Responses to “Does Presence really matter?”

  1. Paul Kapustka

    I would check with Alec and iotum, but I believe they are also working on selective presence — saw Alec demonstrating a version of Talk-Now that showed different messages (available, not available) to different people on the list. To me, that’s the kind of granularity needed to be successful since I am not in the same state of availability to all people at the same time.

    That said, might it not be more of a pain to set all the parameters than to just look at caller ID? Think the jury is still out on this one.

  2. Hi Marcus —

    I don’t believe this is a major threat, although I expect that in the future Jaiku users will have more and more private accounts; this allows them to share their rich presence only with their contacts. The key reason for this, however, is not security, but the need to share more intimate things and to have more personal interaction.

    If somebody wanted to stalk a person that would be quite easy to by just following her blog, Flickr account, Plazes page, MySpace page, etc Aggregation does not provide much added value for such a person. In addition, a person can quite easily fake her Jaiku presence; according to our user studies, this is quite an important feature :-)

    I think that the most important thing is that the users of online services realize which actions are public and which are not, so that no accidental data exposure happen. Although we believe that the old-fashioned ways are still much more easier and efficient for burglars, we are constantly thinking about the ways to improve privacy and identity protection; the next major release will include some new features in this area.

  3. Hello Petteri,

    don’t you think that Jaiku might be a little bit too “holistic”?

    Jaiku’s website gives up to the minute news about where people are and what they are doing. Isn’t this a nice service to burglars who want to pay a visit to their home while they are “On my way to work…” or “off to Thailand for two weeks”.

    Nice stalker service! :)

    It reminds me of the people who accidentally published their Google calendars with most intimate timetables. This was also a nice burglar service, described in a blog post “Death by Google Calendar: How I Identified you to rob you”.

    Jaiku seems to take this service to new spheres by bringing up to the minutes news – and not only weeks old calendars.


  4. I agree with Marcus’s comment above. American businesses are too USA centric. As someone from mentioned at the recent Etel Launchpad that Om co-sponsored – sure there are 200m cellphones in the US,but there are 2b in the rest of the world.
    This Reminds me what a very successful businessman – Bob Huang of Synnex ($6b sales)said to me 20 years ago “Moshe, I am afraid to sell to New York and you want me to sell to Israel??”
    While some things have changed in 20 years, unfortunately this outlook still prevails.
    Ken Camp also highlighted this in his blog at

  5. There seems to be quite a few approaches towards presence at the moment. At Jaiku, we talk about “rich presence”, that is, a holistic picture about what a person is doing. We extract this information not just from mobile handsets, but also from different online services and communities. This is quite close to the “lifestream” concept that was invented by Stowe Boyd quite a while ago.

    We are using rich presence information to bring the phone book alive. Instead of just showing whether a contact is available or not, it provides the user with “social peripheral vision”: she has a feeling of being closer to her family and friends and is more likely to react to their activities, for example by calling them or sending them a message. I totally agree with Alec that this is a winning equation, but then again, I might be slightly biased :-)

    Best, Petteri from Jaiku.

  6. What I really need is a way to signal different availability states for different callers and topics. E.g., I’m available to boss, wife, or anyone who wants to tell me my house is burning down. And, rather than me trying to anticipate my rapidly changing receptiveness to different kind of communications, the ideal system would let the other party announce their interest in communicating with me, and then allow me to respond or ignore based on my current state. Or, if I was particularly interested in a certain communication, I could announce to them, and let them respond. Kind of like a telephone.

  7. Sandeep Sahai

    Well, not sure whether this will enhance or give new dimension to telecom services.
    What i feel right now is added new feature like presence will not help. Infact adding new domain into telecom will help.

    For example, when entertaintment industry joined hands with telecom, a whole new industry is created.
    Similarly innovation and ideas should be focus on how to bring yet another industry in circumference of Telecom domain, may be Health or may be finance…

    Good Luck Alec

  8. Lawrence

    I think the idea of presence is rendered moot by converged phones. If I have IM, email and telephone on one device already why do I need yet another server to track my availability.

    I agree companies gain from the ability to efficiently reach their employees, but we have that capability now with single number reach, unified messaging and IM. So where is the business value?

  9. I even needed time to realize that Alec also has a company, besides of being a great blogger. I like his blog very much and read it daily.

    iotum’s presence software seems to evidence that we can save us from the technology driven information and availability overload only by even more technology.

    The habits are changing. People expect more and more availability and don’t respect times for privacy. Three days ago a company boss, that I had inverviewed before, called me at 10 PM when I was in bed already.

    Higher ranking Blackberry users don’t need iotum. They have a secretary to filter their calls.