Remember the last time your favorite TV courtroom drama took a last-minute twist, thanks to the introduction of new evidence? More than likely a private eye or a surprise witness dashed in to deliver the critical information.
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Now imagine that TV lawyer receiving the good news on his handheld PC -- from a bot, a program that runs in Lotus Sametime and acts as an agent for other applications.
In Florida, believe it or not, Sametime already plays a role in the state's court system. Lawyers arguing cases for Florida's attorney general use Sametime to chat live with researchers toiling behind the scenes in law offices and libraries.
"Sametime puts attorneys and researchers in instant communication with one another in a secure way," said Tom Hillstrom, director of technology for the Florida attorney general's office. Half of the department's 1,200 Notes users also use Sametime.
In the courtroom, attorneys with wireless devices can use Sametime to check facts, request documents and even call for help in an emergency.
Now Hillstrom is considering taking Sametime beyond instant messaging and presence awareness by using bots to reach directly into back-end data without opening new applications.
Sametime bots appear as buddies in the Sametime Connect IM client, performing user-defined searches and returning results within the same chat session. Bots also eliminate the need to carry around large amounts of data that are only as current as a user's latest sync-up.
Bots from business partners
Lotus is leaving bots to its business partners, a handful of which have already developed Sametime bots. One of them, Tallahassee, Fla.-based Cobra Technologies Inc., last month released four out-of-the-box bots for the Lotus IM platform.
"The key thing is making searches more simple," said Cobra Technologies president Brian Rowe. "These bots make it easy to get at information, and they have a very short learning curve."
Users of Cobra's Reminder Bot, for example, can send themselves reminder messages for specific dates and times without running the Notes Calendar application. And Cobra's Mail Monitor bot alerts users to the presence of new e-mail without requiring them to keep Notes open.
Cobra's other two shrink-wrapped bots, Calendar Bot and Directory Bot, promise to spare users the burden of sifting through multiple schedules and directories. By typing a co-worker's name and a date into the Sametime chat window, Calendar Bot users can check their buddies' schedules while they plan meetings. Cobra's Directory Bot will flip through the Domino directory to find specific phone numbers, e-mail addresses and other contact information.
Cobra's bots sell for $1,500 apiece or $5,000 for all four. Rowe said his ready-made bots are merely examples of the kind of targeted, customized agents Cobra can create for its clients.
The all-encompassing bot
But another developer, Needham, Mass.-based Agility Partners Inc., has taken an all-in-one approach to developing and deploying its own Sametime bots.
Agility is especially keen on wireless Sametime users, who may want to access multiple applications without choking their PDAs and WAP-enabled phones. Agility's president, Todd Ketchum, describes his Java/J2EE-compliant ReachBot as a highly configurable data mining application that accesses data from multiple applications.
"With ReachBot, you don't need one bot for your calendar and another for your directory," he said.
Administrators, however, do need to spend some time -- about 20 minutes, according to Ketchum -- configuring an application's XML files and setting up ReachBot's commands.
Agility's other bot, Instant Message Service, uses Sametime and IBM's software integration tool, WebSphere MQ, to create XML instant messages within applications and send them to Sametime clients.
Ketchum said bots are best at helping Sametime users get faster access to up-to-date application data.
Both he and Rowe cited scenarios in which a sales executive might be able to close a deal by being able to call up pricing information with a Sametime bot or receive instant approval from a manager for a particular price.
Beyond that, Ketchum said, the power of bots may be quite limited.
"You don't want to be approving expense reports in a bot," Ketchum said. "The clients don't handle HTML well, for one thing. They probably aren't the best avenue for that level of approval."
But bots may soon be doing plenty for Hillstrom's Sametime users in the Florida attorney general's office by helping lawyers access information themselves.
He looks for off-the-shelf bots to enhance the value not only of back-end data but of the Sametime application itself. By adding bots, "we'll be putting our attorneys right inside a research application, and eliminating the middle-person in the process," Hillstrom said.
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