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Wednesday, March 9, 2005 - Page updated at 08:46 a.m.

Workers' presence known with software

Seattle Times technology reporter

Enlarge this photoPAUL SAKUMA / AP

Presence information is a highlight of Office Communicator 2005, one of several new business products that Chairman Bill Gates launched yesterday at a ceremony in San Francisco.

Lazy office workers, beware.

Microsoft yesterday released new communications software that will let your bosses — and everyone else in the company — know if you're ignoring their e-mail or screening their calls.

The software can display information about users' "presence" — whether they are logged onto a computer, on the telephone or scheduled to attend a meeting. Soon it will also show whether they are available on a Windows-based cellphone.

Presence information is a highlight of Office Communicator 2005, one of several new business products that Chairman Bill Gates launched yesterday at a ceremony in San Francisco.

Communicator is a sort of communications control center for PCs. It displays the names of co-workers and their presence; users click the names to send an instant text message to another computer user, start a video conference or place a phone call over the Internet.

If it works as promised, the software could further blur the line between the PC and the phone and make traditional e-mail seem relatively slow and cumbersome.

Gates said the technology and broader advances in communications are "defining a whole new level of productivity."

"It's one of the big frontiers that Office is moving ahead on," he said during the launch ceremony.

But industry analysts said it will be years before the technology is widely used. Microsoft also faces competition from IBM and companies with far more experience in telecommunications.

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"There are a lot of hurdles for this to overcome before we're going to see the whole world of communication turn on its ear," said Forrester analyst Nate Root. "That said, this is certainly a glimpse of what life is going to be like in five years."

Root said Microsoft is likely to make the technology available to consumers in the future, but for now it's only a business product.

Communicator must be used on a corporate network running Microsoft's Live Communications Server, a new version of which was shown yesterday. Also shown was an updated version of the Live Meeting Web conferencing service.

Microsoft is doing a better job explaining its vision and goals, but other companies already provide similar Internet telephony and Web-conferencing products, said Robert Mahowald, collaborative computing research manager at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

"Things like that are sort of bringing them up to par with other services," he said.

Mahowald said Microsoft has broad ambitions. Near-term it would like to control how incoming calls and messages are handled after they enter a company's network.

"Once it hits the PBX [network], they can take control of it and move it around the enterprise and really do rich things with voice," he said.

Longer-term, it may want to partner with a company such as MCI to provide advanced telephony services or perhaps buy an Internet phone company such as Skype, he said.

An IBM executive said the presence technology is interesting but otherwise Microsoft showed little in new technology.

"A lot of what Microsoft is talking about now is really catch-up — it's things we've been doing with Lotus messaging and Web conferencing since 1998," said Ed Brill, a Lotus business-unit sales executive based in Chicago.

Brill said about half of his customers are using instant-messaging products, especially financial companies such as J.P. Morgan. Some are starting to ask about integrated communications systems, but the technology is still in its early days, with fewer than 10 percent having installed them, he said.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone calling is particularly ripe for growth, said Anoop Gupta, the Microsoft vice president heading its communications group. As companies upgrade old phone systems, they are adding systems with Internet-related features, laying a foundation for products such as Live Communications Server.

"I think that within the next three years, as Voice Over IP becomes more and more prevalent, we are going to see a lot of action in this particular space," he said.

Microsoft is also pursuing the market through partnerships with telecom network companies such as Alcatel and Siemens.

Gupta said the goal of presence information isn't to monitor employees but rather to make them more productive at work.

"I think today's announcements were a big step forward for Microsoft and I think for the industry, toward this vision of integrated communications, which is about rich, presence-based communication, about integrating different modalities of communications," he said.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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