By Carlo Longino
The phone is a great synchronous communications device. You call people, they answer, you talk—what could be easier or more efficient? But the phone isn't so great at asynchronous communications—that is, communication that doesn't require people to be actively conversing at the same time. If you call someone and that person's not around, you leave a voicemail and the awful game of telephone tag begins. Text messages are a little bit better at the whole asynchronous thing, but there's still the expectation that messages will be returned immediately; when somebody doesn t text you back right away, you wonder why.
One of the big selling points of cell phones has always been that they allow people to be reached at any time. While this initially seemed like a good idea, plenty of people now consider it a drawback; they re tiring of the constant calls from work, the text messages from friends, or the never-ending flow of e-mails to a BlackBerry. Of course, the simplest solution is just to shut the phone off, but that s sort of an all-or-nothing proposition. What would be really useful would be some sort of status indicator with which users could state some current information—their availability, at the very least, but perhaps their location or their mood, too. This sort of user information is referred to under the umbrella term of "presence," and as communication becomes even more pervasive in our lives, it will take on great importance.
The simplest and most basic example of presence is the instant-messaging status message: "away", "do not disturb," "available," and so on. But even these have begun to evolve, with many IM programs letting users customize their message to better fit their current state (such as "in a meeting"). Skype lets users set status to "Skype Me," an open invitation for anybody and everybody on the system to chat. This message isn t just an indicator of availability—it s also a social signal that tells the world a certain user is looking to interact with fellow humans.
Another way IM status messages are becoming better indicators of presence is how they handle interaction with mobile phones. On AIM, for instance, users who have an account set up to forward messages to a phone are given the status message "mobile." This indicates not only that they're away from a computer, but that they can receive messages on a phone, so users on the other end know not to send an image or something else unsuitable for the device. This is how presence goes beyond just being a status message; it provides information so people can better suit their communications to fit the receiver's current context.
But presence can also be used to help people control incoming communications. Say I set my status to "work": this could route calls from my friends straight to voicemail, or defer their SMS or e-mails. Conversely, when my presence indicates that I'm not at work, calls from my boss or co-workers don't make my phone ring. As fixed and mobile telephone networks converge and merge with traditional Internet services, these types of rules will become necessary—not just so we can better control how people contact us, but to ensure that the right types of communications are directed to the right device.
Presence solutions exist today, but so far, few (if any) mobile operators have chosen to implement them. But they'll become more common as these operators shift to all-IP networks and VoIP. Still, there are already several applications available that offer a rough approximation of presence. Nokia's Sensor application for some of its smartphones is one. Users can create a profile in Sensor, which then searches via Bluetooth for other phones in the vicinity running the application. Users can look at other peoples' profiles and messages, then ping them with messages. It's a pretty crude example of presence, as nothing happens without an explicit action from a user (i.e. changing the profile, or scanning for other Sensor users). And, of course, it has a number of shortcomings—it only works on a small number of phones, and it's dependent on a person with such a phone actually having and running the device. Sensor does, however, illustrate what will be one of the top uses for presence services—hooking up.
Dodgeball is another service that shows some of the promise of mobile presence, again in a social setting. Users can broadcast their location to their friends by sending a message to the service indicating they're at a certain bar or restaurant—and, presumably, also indicating they want to hang out. Dodgeball sends the message, then replies if any friends or friends-of-friends are within a certain radius. Users can also add "crushes" who get notified if they check in with a location nearby. While the location element is significant, Dodgeball messages are more than that: they're "here I am, come play with me" come-ons, signaling an intent or a desire as much as a location.
So if you're overwhelmed by incoming communication, help is on the way. With so many devices making it possible to simply communicate more, presence will help us communicate better.
Read more Airtime. The column appears every Tuesday on Gizmodo.