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Can Microsoft Redefine Presence?

Do you know where your co-workers are? Nomadic colleagues might be in a hotel room, a branch office or the Starbucks around the corner. And they may not be available by desk phone, cell phone, VoIP, e-mail or IM. Simply trying to initiate a conversation may require serious detective work.

Microsoft's ambitious Office Communications Server 2007, launching in June, aims to take the mystery out of business communication by weaving presence information into multiple applications.

While IM clients already provide basic user status (available, offline, at lunch and so on), Microsoft's forthcoming system provides enhanced presence by tying in e-mail, calendaring and voice. Presence data can be communicated in Outlook, for example, by mousing over an e-mail address. By integrating calendars, presence information can show that even though a user is online, he or she is in a meeting. Users also can initiate phone and video calls from within Office applications. Of course, the system is Microsoft-centric. Exchange 2007 is required for e-mail and calendaring presence. The system doesn't yet work with all public IM clients.

The idea is also being vigorously pursued by competitors such as Cisco Systems, which recently acquired WebEx for online conferencing, and social networking software that enables ad hoc collaboration among users. But Microsoft's greatest challenge may be convincing users that enhanced presence is a communication tool, not a surveillance system. --Andrew Conry-Murray, [email protected]