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and New Products to Help Your Company

A Service That Finds You Every Time

October 14, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I have a new assistant who answers my phone, places my calls and, if I'm not at my home office, takes a message or tracks me down so the caller can get through.

She also keeps track of my telephone directory and calendar, reads my e-mail to me over the phone and lets me know of any important news breaks or if I need to pay attention to one of my investments.

My new assistant isn't a human being but the Portico service launched by General Magic (http://www.generalmagic.com, [800] 767-8426). Designed for small businesses and mobile professionals, the service works through your telephone or your Web browser to help manage your communications.

When you sign up for Portico you're given one of the new toll-free 877 numbers for your exclusive use. When someone calls your toll-free number, Portico answers in a friendly and natural female voice.

First you configure Portico with your name, address, gender and your telephone and pager numbers. You can do that via the Web but the company's customer support will also do it for you on the phone.

When someone calls you, Portico asks them to "please tell me your full name so I can say who's calling." After that, the voice asks if the caller wishes to have "me find him for you" or to leave a message. If the caller chooses to leave a message, he or she is asked for a phone number. Portico repeats it back to be sure it has it right. If the caller asks Portico to find you, the system starts dialing whatever numbers you've given it. It can start with your office, then try your home and finally your cellular phone. When it reaches you, it announces the name of the caller, asks if you want to take the call and, if so, puts the person through. If you don't want to take the call, it tells the caller you're not available and offers to take a message.

Portico can also place your calls or automate the process of returning a call, which can be especially handy if you're using it while driving.

Portico's Web site allows subscribers to enter names, addresses and phone numbers of contacts, or it can synchronize its Web-based database with a Microsoft Outlook file. It will be compatible with ACT databases as well.

Once you have your contacts in Portico's database, you can call the service and ask it to open your address book to the person you want to call. In most cases, Portico will recognize the name, look up the phone number and place the call without you touching a single button on your dial pad.

Voice recognition is not an exact science, but Portico does a pretty good job. Most of the time it got it right as it searched through the hundreds of names in my database to place calls for me. I find this to be the most useful part of the service. It's great to be able to place calls from a car phone without having to look up a number.

In addition to reading your messages to you on the phone, Portico will also post them on a Web site that you can access with your user ID and password. You can listen to a recorded message via the Web or you can see the caller's phone number.

If you subscribe to an Internet service provider whose mail is "pop3" compatible (that's most ISPs but not AOL), then Portico will also read you your e-mail over the phone and let you dictate a response that the user can play back through the speakers on their PC. This is a way to read and respond to e-mail when you're away from a computer. The downsides are that it can be quite time consuming to listen to long e-mail messages over the phone. And instead of the friendly voice, Portico reads the messages in a rather unpleasant computer voice.

You can also use Portico's Web site to tell it what type of news stories or stocks you want to follow and call the service to get your news over the phone. Just as Portico can access your address book, it can also access your Outlook Calendar so that you can check your schedule when you're away from a PC.

Although the basic pricing is low, Portico can get expensive if you use it a lot. Its clock runs whenever someone leaves you a message or when you're on the phone retrieving messages and placing calls.

The basic service plan of $17.95 a month comes with only 60 minutes of incoming and outgoing calls and it costs 20 cents for each additional minute. There is a variety of pricing options all the way up to $134.95 a month for 1,300 minutes (and 15 cents each additional minute). Time charges cover all your phone costs, including any domestic long-distance calls Portico makes when you ask it to place a call or return a message, or if Portico needs to track you down while you're out of town. The time can add up quickly because you're charged for your connection to Portico and Portico's connection to the party you're calling.

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