Using Presence to Make Web Meetings Manageable

IM-based availability indicators are at the heart of Convoq's new online collaboration service.
It's increasingly rare in today's busy corporate environment for meetings go off without a hitch -- particularly those unscheduled, urgent discussions that arise so frequently.

It's true even for conference calls or online, virtual meetings -- perhaps even more so, since they're often viewed as being more informal. Invariably, it seems that a key participant arrives late or woefully unprepared, or is too busy to make the meeting at all. And occasionally, appropriate subject-matter experts be accidentally left out altogether.

Fortunately, a new player in the real-time collaboration and conferencing space aims to tackle such problems -- at least as they apply in the online realm. This week at the DEMO show, Boston-based Convoq -- which had been formerly known as Applied Messaging and adopted its current moniker with its latest round of financing -- took the wraps off its hosted solution, ASAP, which leverages presence and availability information gleaned from IM, to ensure meaningful collaboration.

While the company's solution offers a suite of online collaborative tools -- text-based IM and chat, file transfers, audio conferencing, videoconferencing, PowerPoint sharing, and screen sharing -- its real power thus lies in its convocation management engine.

ASAP's core technology provides for intelligently launching meetings -- commencing collaborative sessions only when each necessary person is available, as determined through presence-based data. That means that invitations to a meeting won't activate until every key participant has changed their IM status indicator to "available," or the equivalent. (Indeed, the product's actual abbreviation stands for "As Soon as Present.") Users not on IM are sent e-mail invites.

The system also supports group presence indicators -- dubbed "lifelines" -- which tie a collection of subject-matter experts into a single contact name. Messages to the group are routed to the first available member. As a result, users could click on the appropriate pipeline to begin chatting with a customer rep, or a help desk technician, for instance.

Combined with ASAP's meeting scheduling technology, the system is aimed at offering companies an easy way to convene meetings that involve everyone necessary.

"In Web collaboration ... one issue is gathering groups together rapidly, but the second is even tougher -- finding out who the experts are, who's got the corporate knowledge," Convoq Chief Executive Chuck Digate said. "It's not in databases any more, it's sitting in peoples' heads. Getting information when you want it, from the right people, is critical ... One of our premier functionalities is the ability to get to people you don't know -- the ability to find expert resources, which we call 'lifelines.'"

Numerous, smaller features further simplify this process. The system also supports scheduled meetings, which can be automatically added to users' Outlook calendars. Additionally, an ability for users to designate "stand-ins" enables meetings -- scheduled or otherwise -- to take place even when personnel specifically invited by the meeting's organizer might not be available.

A special "VIP" feature enables users to designate key contacts for whom they wish to make themselves available -- such as key customers or investors -- while limiting their general availability to all others.

The system's client-side user interface also ties neatly into users' public or enterprise IM clients. ASAP automatically integrates contact lists into its own multi-network client, while enabling text IM users to receive meeting invites.

"Whether you use Trillian, AIM, MSN, Yahoo!, Sametime or Microsoft Live Communication Server, we support all those IM systems in our first release," Digate said. "Or whether you're not in any IM system but have an e-mail address, the system will aggregate all of those."

Furthermore, relatively little is required on the client side to support the solution. Like a handful of players in the IM and collaboration field -- such as Userplane -- Convoq has opted to base its solution on Macromedia Flash, which has the benefit of already being widely deployed, since an estimated 90-plus percent of Web users already have Flash installed.

The system also offers security and management features. Conversations and collaborative sessions are encrypted using SSL, and ASAP offers text transcript and event logging. IT administrators can manage users, and provision contact lists and pipelines. Coming upgrades will include LDAP integration.

Despite the innovative features, Convoq naturally faces competition from established players in Web conferencing -- a number of whom are getting into the IM and presence business.

WebEx and Yahoo! , for instance, have a partnership integrating their enterprise offerings. FaceTime Communications has a deal with Latitude, now a unit of Cisco , for similar integration work. Meanwhile, the IM networks -- as well as startups like Userplane -- are seeking to bring more advanced forms of multimedia communication to IM.

Still, the company is nonchalant.

"Yes, there are big players in that marketplace," Digate said. "But it's also a real opportunity for some real innovation."

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of

How can your business integrate IM into your existing tools and processes? Join us at the Instant Messaging Planet Spring Conference and Expo, March 3 and 4 in Boston. Sessions include: "IM Technology Introduction: Transports, Protocols, and Integration into Your Systems" and "Integrating Business Applications: The Collaborative Workplace."

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