Presence of Minds

While some have hailed this week's debut of Tello Corp. as an important step forward in "presence-based" enterprise connectivity, the company, which had operated in stealth mode for nearly two years, faces a field crowded with major players, including Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and Siemens Communications Group .

Tello's "cross-platform instantaneous communications" enables enterprise users to immediately reach their partners, colleagues, and other contacts using a service that indicates whether the person they're trying to reach is on a landline or mobile phone, or is logged on to an instant-messaging service. The user can then choose which communication mode to connect on.

What makes Tello unique, says its CEO, Doug Renert, is the ability, not only to see who on your list of contacts is available at any moment, but to collaborate instantly with them. "Presence allows the initial kickoff of the communications, and then you're able to communicate the way you need to by launching various applications within our service and collaborate seamlessly. Tello acts as a trusted broker, allowing that to happen with your community of contacts across diverse platforms and devices, regardless of whether they're outside your company or whether they're using the same systems."

The basic service is Internet-based; users enter their contacts and preferences via a secure Web page and launch applications using a shared screen. The cost is $30 a year per user; there's also a streamlined, free version available for download by individuals. For additional fees, enterprises can also choose from a set of smart applications to manage their communications.

"There are other existing platforms that do similar things, like Microsoft LCS and Lotus SameTime," acknowledges Renert. "But in general they're expensive, difficult to set up, and focused on internal business apps. By allowing these kinds of applications to be used across a diverse ecosystem of communications, Tello really changes the way people use these systems."

With a backend that essentially comprises three elements -- a database server containing directories and preferences, a SIP proxy server for voice calls, and an IM proxy server -- the service also features a desktop client that works with Windows XP and Blackberry devices. Users can choose which devices to be available on at any given time, and can dynamically change the profile they present to other Tello contacts.

Tello boasts a powerhouse group of founders and investors, including billionaire cellular phone pioneer Craig McCaw, former Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) CEO John Sculley, telecom financier Michael Price, and Jeff Pulver, the founder of Vonage Holdings Corp. (NYSE: VG) Renert is a former Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL) exec.

Despite that sort of braintrust and financial backing, Tello faces an enterprise market grappling with the whole concept of transparent, real-time connectivity and workforce availability.

"We want to narrow our users down to one [communications] device, not enable them to carry multiple different devices," says Lori Dickinson, project analyst with the clinical information systems department at the University of California, Davis Medical Center, which has been running a voice system from Vocera Communications Inc. for the last two years. "For administrative people who are running projects, this would probably be a useful service, but for the clinicians -- they have their Vocera badge and they're either available or not. You don’t need to know if they're on their PDA phone, or on IM, or whatever."

A Walkie-talkie world
True presence-based communications -- by which a system can locate the desired contact, indicate its availability, and connect with it in an efficient, transparent manner -- has been a goal of many enterprises for years, points out Bob Kimball, the CEO of Meca Communications, a consumer-focused, presence-based service provider.

These days, "It's a walkie-talkie world," says Kimball, "and I believe the whole notion of 'calling' someone is going to be a historical artifact. We're moving toward a new era of zero-failure, instant communication."

Breathless forecasts aside, there are plenty of potential productivity gains for enterprises, from eliminating time spent waiting for callbacks and playing phone-tag to using the powerful collaboration tools that Tello claims its service will provide. Like many buzzwords, however, "presence" has different meanings for different people.

"[The Tello service] looks like an interesting tool," yawns David Leach, "presence solutions evangelist" at Siemens, which offers its own cross-platform service, called OpenScape, that runs on top of Microsoft's Live Communications Server platform. "But it basically sounds like yet another company talking about 'presence' as if instant messaging is the end-all and be-all -- and throwing the 'collaboration' term around as if asking if I can call you at your phone number is really collaboration."

Merging the channels
"The thing they've done that's interesting is they've staked out this one service with interoperability," explains Meca's Kimball. "That not only takes care of a couple channels -- IM, voice, cellular -- but they've also managed to rope in another device, with the Blackberry. That merging of the channels is an important step."

Other companies besides Siemens and Microsoft developing presence-based tools include Cisco, with its Call Manager offering; Vocera, which offers in-facility voice communications systems that, like IM, indicate a contact's location and availability; Avaya Inc. , which, like Cisco, is an early partner with Tello; and cellular equipment vendors like Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and Nortel Networks Ltd. . (See Vonage Shows Off WiFi Phone.) Still unclear are two key criteria in enterprise IT purchasing decisions: how companies, and more particularly workers, will actually integrate and use these tools, and just how much ROI or competitive advantage they will deliver.

"My own personal perspective, being in the technology field with a geographically dispersed workforce, is that this kind of system with multiple ways of reaching me would be spectacular to have," says UC-Davis's Dickinson. "But as a hospital we have a highly unionized workforce, with all types of staff who are sensitive about people knowing exactly where they are and when they're available."

Tailoring different services for different vertical markets will be the next big challenge for presence-based communications providers, observes Siemens' Leach. The goal: a unified communications platform that can be easily embedded into a variety of applications and devices: "It's not the standard approach -- 'Let's build yet another monolithic platform device, yet another add-on that the user has to deal with.' "

Systems like OpenScape and Tello have the advantage of working across multiple platforms with a high degree of user (as opposed to institutional) control. Ultimately, though, the spread of presence-based services may depend on a fundamental shift in human nature, says Kimball:

"It's going to be really interesting to watch what happens with end-users, as they try to manage a multiplicity of devices and channels through a single service. As an enterprise sale, it's by definition top-down: They're adopting it because the IT guy told them to. I lay even odds that we'll see a mild revolt."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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