First Phase: Isolated Web Awareness

The Virtual Presence concept has been developed based on earlier concepts and systems. The idea of being aware of other users, who are reading the same page at the same time originated early in the history of the Web. First projects emerged in 1994. An important milestone was Virtual Places. Virtual Places merged with the Lotus Sametime product where the focus shifted from visitor awareness on Web resources to shared work spaces and instant message services. The notion of an author's presence on documents remains until today. It has been reinforced by strong IM integration.

The CoBrow (Collaborative Browsing) project started 1996 as a meeting system in online libraries. Then it moved to the more general concept of Web awareness. CoBrow introduced the weighted awareness. Weighted awareness includes multiple parameters in the presence computation. Examples are the link distance between users in terms of the minimum number of hypertext references between their current Web pages, the duration of page visits, and the relation of the pages with respect to the content. CoBrow also created an individual presence for each user as opposed to systems, which created a single presence list for a data resource. Another Web awareness project, WebPlaces applied the social proxy display to communities of Web users.

Technically, these were isolated systems, which relied on Web server modifications or HTTP proxies for information gathering. A typical client was implemented in Java, which was the only way to show dynamic user interfaces in the context of Web browsers.

Second Phase: Proprietary Systems

The second phase of Web awareness came during the Internet boom 1999. It was largely driven by startup companies, like Hypernix, NovaWiz, Cyland (product names: Gooey, Odigo, etc.). These companies strived to create and dominate a consumer market for Web awareness. Their systems were centralized and organized like early IM systems. All clients connected to the server network, which was operated by the providing company. They were using binary clients as user interface and for information gathering. The client showed a textual list (presence list) of peers in a window, which was very similar to the buddy list of IM clients. The major difference was, that the contact list of an IM client is static, while the presence list of a Web awareness client is created dynamically.

These systems revealed their single point of failure, when venture capital dried out. Even though the failure had a financial reason, there was no infrastructure to keep the services running. Technical similarities of Web awareness and IM became obvious during this phase. Some developers turned their client into pure IM systems to participate in the IM boom. Large players, which had joined the Web awareness family with co-browsing extensions to their IM products (ICQ Surf, T-Online Messenger), followed the market and stopped pilot projects.

Third Phase: Open and Distributed

The third phase of virtual presence aims at ubiquitous presence on the Web with open standards and distributed systems. In general chat systems can be used as virtual presence infrastructure. Web locations (URLs) are mapped to chat room IDs and participant lists of rooms turn into virtual presence lists. This allows to use an existing chat system as presence network. Virtual presence systems could even be transport protocol independent like recent instant message clients, which talk various protocols.

The Web is hosted by millions of servers and it is used by a huge number of users. A distributed virtual presence system fits well to the architecture of the Web. It can cope with the load of millions of users and can be as robust as the Web against component failures. A distributed virtual presence system can be based on a distributed chat network.

This information is preliminary, though. Several providers built large and robust, but centralized instant messaging networks. Requirements for a virtual presence network are very similar to IM networks. IM providers could easily integrate virtual presence functions and operate centralized virtual presence systems. They have done so during the second phase.

But, since there is no centralized virtual presence network available, it is assumed, that the third phase is characterized by virtual presence networks, which are distributed and based on open standards. They share these features with the technical foundations of the Web.


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