The New Voice of Presence
Deep in the DNA of every living being grows an irrepressible desire to control and modify the world that surrounds it. Every fall, whales migrate from the coast of Maine south to warmer waters, while chickens huddle on cold winter nights in the corner of the coop. Tonight, a teenager in Denver is dying her hair, while a parent screams and a friend smiles. Perhaps there is nothing more embedded in our subconcious mind than this need to control our physical world. All animals feel stress when their environment becomes out of their control, and these needs come in all sizes. Do we purchase the candy bar, or do we purchase the right to control our emotional health for the following five minutes? I know someone who keeps her candy bars in the freezer, as an insurance policy against feeling too bad. Simply put, the more we can control, the happier we think we’re going to be. Just like the mythical “Please, just do what I wanted you to do” application, no piece of technology will be able to read our minds around our anxieties, and it’s up to us to manage this. The matter is as personal as it gets.
If you look carefully at the evolution of the phone experience, you can see a steady stream of innovation around this very subject. As evidence, I give you the receptionist, who’s major function is to control inbound phone conversations. Caller ID, find-me services and profiles on cell phones all testify to our attempts at avoiding phone calls, and as we all know, we still fail in our attempts. The problem is not restricted to inbound calls, as we have as many problems trying to reach our intended audience as they do trying to reach us, providing a unique stress of its own. The essential problem is familiar to any child in a sea of adults: the telephone tells us when it wants to talk, but we have no opportunity to say when we want to talk. In traditional telephony, there is no real opportunity to express our needs and desires; our control is limited.
Next generation communications, provided today in the form of instant messaging services like Yahoo! or AOL, solve this fundamental problem with Presence. Presence provides a subscriber with the ability to talk back to the network, to describe wants and desires. This may not be apparent from the outset, as our current experience with presence is setting a status on a buddy list. But, in practice, it’s how we express our communications desires to the people to our buddies. This is derived from your status - “On the phone” means don’t call me and “Away” means that I’m hiding. Next generation communications means we are no longer babies, and we can talk back, but with a limited vocabulary.
New Presence is more mature, and stops playing these adolescent games. Instead of playing diplomat, New Presence allows the direct expression of these needs - “I want to speak with you, but not now... I would like to speak tomorrow at 5pm.” and “I’m in a place where I can’t talk, but text messages are OK.” What a new power this is for us, since it is the first time in human history that we have a socially acceptable, ubiquitous and easy to use method to throttle our interpersonal communications. New Presence does this in a complex and sophisticated way. Unlike first generation presence systems, which only work on crude measures such as how long it’s been since you’ve moved your mouse, New Presence uses items like your schedule, your contact list, your past behavior and even your physical location to communicate your presence to the network. Once you know your GPS location, it is a simple matter to correlate it with a web service to shut the ringer off whenever you are within 100 feet of a church, a library or a movie theatre. This sort of rich control of communications is what New Presence is about, and provides the sort of environmental control which subscribers value and crave.
This drive towards personalization, aided by democratizing technologies such as New Presence, will make subscribers claim their voice, taking this power closer and closer to themselves. Although there will still be network based services and applications, the ones that will be successful will be network based only for reasons of efficiency and economics. They will still have to provide ample control for users. Gone will be the days of Orwellian carriers owning and controlling a user’s communication experience. Instead, carriers and other service providers will be forced into openness and flexibility, in order to support the sorts of control that customers demand.
The challenge to the carriers is a boon to handset vendors. Since presence is so powerful, and so personal, it will likely live in a piece of network equipment nearest the user; either the desktop or the mobile handset. Until we can truly mobilize our desktop, perhaps by way of some implant behind the ear, it appears as though our mobile handset will be the platform that we use to control our presence, and therefore our communications. Other factors support this movement, as evidenced by the healthy ring tone market, and the fact that handset sales are more driven by style then by functionality. The handset vendor that maximizes New Presence, and makes it an integral part of the experience, will provide the sort of control that reduces stress, and firmly establishes customer loyalty deep in the subconscious.
The new voice in the network is an old one. The new voice in the network is yours, now fully able to speak not only to your friends, but to speak to the phone itself.