Presence and Availability: Coming to a Mobile Phone Near You

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While the PC-based instant messaging world seems unlikely to shake the limitations of proprietary systems and differing, incompatible protocols anytime soon, the same can't be said for the wireless industry.

Instead, there's a good chance that the foundations for presence-enabled messaging and other applications could be coming to mobile phones within the year -- and in part, that's due to the tremendous strides made by the area's industry groups during the past several months.

Last year, the 3GPP -- the association overseeing GSM development in Europe -- accepted specifications drawn up by the Presence and Availability Management Forum, which will appear in Revision 5 of the 3GPP's specs. 3GPP2, the U.S. offshoot, is expected to adopt those same specifications as well.

The Forum's specifications govern the syndication and control of users' presence on mobile devices -- the foundation for IM Buddy Lists and the slew of collaborative applications expected to leverage the same technology.

Now, the PAM Forum is merging into the Parlay Group -- an industry consortium looking to hammer out open API specifications and solve cross-network interoperability issues facing mobile applications. Through the move, the Forum gains better ties with Parlay's membership, which includes Alcatel , BT Group , and other telecom giants -- all the better for getting presence-enabled apps into the marketplace.

And that's likely to happen sooner that you might think. One of the earliest areas in which wireless subscribers -- consumers and enterprise clients both -- are likely to see presence and availability come to mobile phones isn't, as some might expect, in mobile instant messaging. Instead, corporate jealousy is prompting carriers -- in the U.S. especially -- to get presence-enabled Push-to-Talk (or P2T) technology out into the marketplace.

Not long after Nextel Communications saw dramatic success from being the first to deploy the technology, larger rival carriers like Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS began angling for a piece of the action. Verizon plans to launch its service sometime within the year; Sprint has yet to disclose much of its plans.

Pitfalls lie ahead, however. It's not clear whether the newcomers' infrastructure will support the nearly instantaneous messaging speed of Nextel's Integrated Digital Enhanced Network (iDEN) network, designed by Motorola .

"Push-to-Talk is an emerging field, and becoming even more talked about than IM at the moment because a lot of the U.S. operators looking at it -- mostly because of Nextel's dominance in the area," said Guda Venkatesh, chief technology officer at presence and availability software player Teltier Technologies, and chairman of the PAM Working Group. "But they cannot compete on their older networks, so they are looking at competing feature differentiation -- one of those is presence and availability management."

Taking a cue from PC-based instant messaging, the emerging plans for a number of these P2T implementations include services that feature Buddy List-like systems -- enabling users to know beforehand whether the user they're about to voice-message is available and able to answer.

Enter wireless network equipment manufacturers and software players, who are looking to provide presence services. Ericsson is working on technology that would create a push-to-talk service dubbed InstantTalk. The service will support CDMA and GSM networks, and was developed by Sonim Technologies, which also has partnerships with mobile phone operating system vendors like Symbian, Microsoft , and Motorola, which power other manufacturers' phones.

Meanwhile, a unit of phone maker Samsung is working with wireless software developer Togabi to create P2T technology on its devices. FastMobile launched its presence-enabled FastChat Push-to-Talk service earlier this month for GPRS-capable phones. And IBM recently signed a deal with Teltier to add presence information to a version of its Websphere Application Server targeted at businesses' telecommunications needs, and introduced its own Push-to-Talk play earlier this month.

In addition to adding previously unseen features to their P2T implementations, presence management could make the service more appealing to deep-pocketed corporate America.

"Nextel's niche is more of a blue-collar network, where people don't mind a walky-talky situation," Venkatesh said. "In an enterprise situation, you just can't Push-to-Talk to someone in a meeting, and blurt our something that can be overheard. It's important to know presence and availability before you press 'Talk.'"

P2T: the first step

Driven by their aim to unseat Nextel as the sole provider of Push-to-Talk in the U.S., it's likely that the other national carriers will be the agents for bringing presence to mobile phones. That, Venkatesh said, could be the spark that propels presence information into a range of other mobile-phone applications.

"Presence and availability are common to a number of applications, including IM," he said. "And they become more useful when doing something on a mobile phone -- voice applications, IM applications, gaming applications, downloads and things like that."

In advance of such applications, Venkatesh said Parlay's newly formed PAM Working Group is aiming to continue the PAM Forum's goal of creating network-independent standards for mapping between PAM's specifications and specific protocols -- like SIP/SIMPLE, which has become popular among enterprise messaging and VoIP vendors, and the Wireless Village/Open Mobile Alliance protocol, more popular with handset manufacturers.

The objective is interoperability between protocols and networks for the detection and syndication of a mobile user's presence and availability -- a plan that industry insiders expect to increase demand for the services, similar to how Short Messaging Service grew to become staggeringly popular only after carriers supported cross-network messaging.

"Both [SIMPLE and Wireless Village] have presence requirements, and we're doing the mapping," Venkatesh said. "So ultimately, presence information can come from what looks like a Wireless Village presence server to a Wireless Village client, and a SIMPLE server to SIMPLE clients. We're working to support all the functionalities of these protocols."

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.

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