Does Presence really matter?

Is the idea of “presence” really one of the next steps in communications applications, or is it just a fancy way of not having to answer your phone?

Alec Saunders, one of the founders of VoIP presence software startup iotum, definitely hopes it’s the former, and not just because his company wants to make a buck off the idea. In personal appearances as well as his well-read blog, Saunders is a champion of the Voice 2.0 idea, using applications to move the world of communicating past busy signals and voice mail.

We caught up with Alec for a quick email Q-and-A about presence, iotum and blogging, which follows after the jump.

Paul Kapustka: Why do we need to solve the “presence” problem?

Alec Saunders: Two words: telephone tag. Did you know that some studies have shown that the probability of actually making a connection with a human being when you pick up the phone is less than 20 percent? Presence helps solve this problem by letting you know the availability of the other party to take your call, before the call gets made. Reach more people with fewer calls… sounds like a winning equation to me!

Paul Kapustka: How much a barrier is social inertia — people not wanting to make themselves available?

Alec Saunders: Privacy is definitely an issue, but our observation has been that the fear isn’t of “big brother”, but rather it is unrestricted access. How many people do you know that turn off IM, or always appear to be offline? And naturally, that’s one of the problems we specifically tried to address with Talk-Now. [Editor’s note: Talk-Now is a presence app for Blackberrys that lets others see if you are available for a call, and vice versa.]

Paul Kapustka: Is red-yellow-green enough granularity (for now)?


Alec Saunders: For now, I think yes. Remember, if you have access to the yellow [interrupt is OK] state on Talk-Now, you also get access to other information (in a meeting, etc.). But if we need more states, we’ll add them as users ask.

Paul Kapustka: How did Iotum get started, and how is it going to make money?

Alec Saunders: Iotum got started by a couple of wild-eyed (or wild-haired, in Howard’s case) guys who figured that VoIP was going to usher in some exciting and interesting changes in the voice market. We knew applications would be big, and our first business plan focused on providing web services [to the] telcos. Nobody would finance that in 2003, so we picked a subset of that functionality, and built the context driven telephony application we had envisioned as part of the service we wanted to deliver.

Fast forward to today… our business plan is to deliver, for free, a great mobile presence application to handsets beginning with BlackBerry but ultimately extending to any Symbian or Windows Mobile handset. We’ll make money from additional presence enabled applications that depend on that infrastructure.

Paul Kapustka: How do you find time to run a company and blog so much?

Alec Saunders: First, we really believe in the value of blogging, and doing it actively. Blogging has really been our only consistent marketing tool. It’s generated tremendous visibility and returns for us. And second, I have a great friend and partner in Howard Thaw. We each have different roles to play at iotum, but unlike a lot of startups with one founder, our partnership allows a little more flexibility.