The PhoneBoy Blog


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Presence And Identity

When Alec Saunders had started things off by talking about “New Presence” and a few others chimed in, I purposefully didn’t read any of the posts. I did see the resulting email discussion, but that was it. I wanted to really think about the problem for myself before having my thoughts too polluted by reading everyone else’s thoughts.

The problem that I believe Alec and the like is trying to solve: how to manage the incoming flow of communications. I think Alec understands that this is an insanely complex problem to try and tackle. Here’s the thing: most normal people don’t have this problem. There are maybe one or two ways to get a hold of most people in real time. A land line and possibly a mobile phone. That’s it. IM isn’t on their radar, or if it is, it’s not an important enough communication mechanism that it needs to be “managed” by anything more complicated than an on/off switch. In fact, even with the phones, about the only management that needs to occur is by looking at the Caller ID and making a decision right there or, as with IM, just switching it off.

The only people that seem to have this problem are hyper-connected people. People who just have way too many ways to reach them and too many people trying to reach them. There are few people like that in the world. While I have lots of ways to reach me, I get relatively few contacts a day–certainly manageable without any complex tools.

Ignoring the fact that I find the whole concept of “presence management” a solution in search of a problem for most people, there’s the whole technical problem of trying to work within the various walled gardens. On my Mac, I am running 3 applications: Skype, Gizmo, and Adium. Adium connects me to 4 different IM networks: AOL/ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, and GTalk. That’s six different walled gardens to have to work within, and that’s just IM. If you add voice and/or video, you can add SightSpeed to the mix. Then there is my land line, my mobile phone, and who knows what other VoIP numbers I have. They all have their own concept of “presence” and don’t share what they know. Furthermore, they don’t make it easy for interlopers such as iotum to come in and try and “manage” that presence.

In order to be active in any of these walled gardens, you have to have some kind of identifier. On the telephone network we call that identifier a phone number. On any of the various IM networks, it’s a nickname or email address. What it is really doesn’t matter. However, that identifier is your identity–it is that thing that uniquely identifies you on those networks. In the above example, I have at least 10 distinct identifiers. 10? That’s just insane! And that’s not even a complete list!

The problem I have isn’t a presence problem, it’s an identity problem. I have too many identities! I know a larger subset of people that have that problem rather than a “presence management” problem. And I think I have a solution: a single identity for all networks.

This, of course, will also have technical problems–similar to those you run into with managing presence across multiple walled gardens. In fact it may be worse because once there is some way to have a “global” identity, you can bet companies will be stepping all over themselves to let you have “them” manage your identity for you. Part of that identity management could easily be “presence management.” In fact, that’s almost what you want in a single identity world.

Let’s say that we have this utopia of a single identity across multiple networks and I want to communicate with Ken Camp. I can query the “identity server” and find out if he’s “available” anywhere and what methods he is available by. I can then connect to him if I desire or perhaps choose something asynchronous like email.

Because each network element must touch the identity server, the central identity server becomes a focal point in determining how you can be reached at any point in time. And then it becomes much more trivial to manage that communication more effectively with iotum or similar tools. Until we have a single identity across networks, no method of managing presence will be effective.


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