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Waiting for That Important Email? Portico Finds You Anywhere!

Interview With Steve Markman, President and CEO of General Magic

by Don Hamilton

Copyright 1998 Don Hamilton. All rights reserved.

Ever been on a trip and not been able to get to your email? It can drive you crazy if you're waiting for that all-important message. If that message comes in, you wish you could have your beeper go off or your cell phone ring with the recorded message that the email has been sent. Now you can do that with Portico for probably less than the cost of a cell phone service.

Portico will, among other things, answer and sort your email. It will talk to you over the phone and play back emails sent to your email address. If you're a "Type A" (and who isn't sometimes?) you can interrupt it during the reading of your mail, or any other time, and ask questions or give directions. For instance, if you ask it to read the titles to your emails, during the reading you can stop it and ask it to read a particular email and it will start reading. When you hit the point in that message (usually about one paragraph or less) that you realize it's junk mail, you say, "Read the next one," and it will move on. It will talk to people who call you and direct messages to anywhere you want. It will collect information from callers. It's a very powerful addition to your modern office. Sometimes the computer is not the best tool; a telephone, notepad or book are much more appropriate. This is one of those services that will change your life while filling a need.

Steve Markman, Ph.D., Chairman of the Board, as well as President and CEO of General Magic, recently talked to us about Portico, the newest revolution in communications. Steve has worked for all those companies that are most famous for great accomplishments and/or creative working environments. He worked at AT&T, mostly at Bell Laboratories, and Hewlett Packard, where he was general manager of the information networks division, and Novell, where he ran all of their products for several years. He has degrees (a Masters and Ph.D.) in electrical engineering and electrophysics from Polytechnic University.

One of the things that struck me about Steve was his understanding of the need of upper management, entrepreneurs and small business people to use more familiar technologies in a very high-tech way such as voice over phone.

WWWiz: How do you have the news of a 1,000 companies at your fingertips in Portico?

S.M.: We have relationships with Business Wire, Associated Press and PR Wire. We have stock quotes on all of these companies, as well. This information is all provided through a system of filtering technology. These technologies are provide by two partner companies; one is Alpha Micro and the other is called Ensemble. We use their technology to sort through news and stock quotes.

WWWiz: So this information is available through a telephone query by voice?

S.M.: Yes that is correct. You don't have to have anything set up you can just ask anything about any of 15000 companies and you can get stock quotes. It's not limited to any thing that you have to set up you can just ask any thing. You can setup a profile and then you essentially have a personal newspaper that covers the subject you are interested in.

WWWiz: When did Portico go live?

S.M.: We launched on July 30th with a progressive rollout. We didn't want to run into the same problems as America Online and Microsoft Network ran into. What we are doing is new and there are no tail lights to follow. Trying to find out what paying customers will really use is very important. We decided to it was important to deliver great service right on day one. Rather than running big advertising campaigns at first we would just take the backlog of people who were interested in the service and have them sign up and start paying and see what their pattern usage are and we are getting a lot of usage on the system and it is holding up beautifully. Basically we have accomplished everything we wanted to on the first month of rollout.

WWWiz: How big is your target market?

S.M.: The target market is many millions.

WWWiz: Is this a PC-based system or will it work with any Internet-linked system?

S.M.: It works on a Macintosh system, as well. It is not an issue. .wav files can be played on a Macintosh, as well. There is virtually nothing commercially available to play the file. You have to use a shareware program that's available for free. Anyone that signs up with a Mac, we tell them to go to the Web site and download this shareware program that's just great.

WWWiz: The question is because there are a lot of power road warriors who use Macs.

S.M.: The fact is, all you need is a telephone-you don't even need a computer. If you have a Mac, you drag the .wav file over to the shareware icon and it plays.

WWWiz: Is Portico General Magic's primary business?

S.M.: Portico is the primary focus of the company. It's a service bureau and it's targeted for business professionals. Our initial target market is small-business people, and we'll be adding capabilities early next year to capture large corporations. We'll have to work with firewalls, Lotus Notes, Microsoft's exchange or any of those messaging systems that are used in the large corporations, so we're broadening the scope and scale of Portico so we will not just be for small business. We are also adding a deeper functionality for Internet commerce transaction services that we'll be adding. Our entire focus is built around Portico and our service center. We'll also be working with Intel device manufacturers to work with their portable wireless devices. Our Data Rover is one of our Legacy products which I believe is going to be successful, but it's a very different market for us.

WWWiz: Are you working mostly with cell phone companies?

S.M.: Yes, we are. They are our initial channel for distribution because these folks are already selling services like voice mail and other consumer products, so they're a natural channel for our product. We started with them and they are quick into market and very large carriers. We also have carriers that are doing internal trials of Portico. We expect to see some of those internal trials turning into market trials by the first part of next year.

WWWiz: Do you have any problems with poor-quality connections such as overseas lines?

S.M.: Well! There are a lot of poor quality connections in the United States. [laughs] If your mother can't understand you on the local phone service, then Portico is going to have a hard time also. We have not done extensive testing overseas but I can tell you anecdotally-I rented a telephone from NTT Dokomo when I was in Tokyo about two months ago. It's one of these tiny telephones that they sell over there that's digital, and I was talking to Portico in a taxi cab in downtown Tokyo as we passed the emperor's palace and it worked great.

We built the system so that you can barge in, so that type-A's can get in there and interrupt it all the time, which allows them to get on with whatever they want to get on with. If it allows you to interrupt it, then obviously other things can interrupt it. Other things such as loud noise or the popping sounds you hear on cellular sometimes. The good news is the system doesn't break down; it just comes back and says, "I didn't understand what you said."

WWWiz: What speech recognition engine do you use and how is it working?

S.M.: We haven't talked about who we're working with on that score but we recognize the fact about speech recognition engines. All they do is convert an utterance into a string of characters and respond with a number that is indicative of confidence that the speech recognition system had that it was translated properly. That's all speech recognizers do and that's a very hard problem. That's really the technology out there; we're licensing that from one company now and we intend to license several others, largely because one size does not fit all. What we have done is built a system with different speech recognizers for different problems. This particular technology is not of special importance. It's sort of like having DOS in your PC, or command-level language in your Macintosh, and the Windows GUI (graphical user interface) and the Macintosh GUI hide the underlying operating system. Our voice user interface we have branded Magic Talk and it does all the natural language processing. We don't license that; we built that ourselves.

WWWiz: How do I use the Portico system with my current email and Internet accounts?

S.M.: In Portico you actually go into the system and set up your accounts. We have support people that help you do that. You get a personal Web site when you sign up for the service, and the Web site is yours and only yours, and on that site are various preferences. You fill in the fields about your email account and other details to tell Portico how to get your email. Some email systems are nonstandard and may have to be forwarded by your provider into the Portico system. For example, all my mail comes to me through the General Magic firewall and what I do is just forward all my mail out to Portico. I also have an Earthlink account, but it could be Hotmail or Juno or any one of the email systems. The standard services use POP3. If it's a standard POP3 account we can go access it. If you just tell us what your address and password are, we can go get your mail.

WWWiz: Speaking of email standards, what kind of email rules can you set up?

S.M.: It's important to understand that there's a lot of email that you don't want to have to listen to on the telephone. You can tell Portico to only collect those names that are important to you. You can set up, for example, domain names, any message coming from a particular domain, a particular address with a certain set of characters in it. It can also search for key words in the subject line. We'll literally go to your email system and check your email for ones that pass all your filters, and then we'll bring them into Portico. If you get hundreds of emails you can screen out the ones you're not interested in.

WWWiz: Would this system be a good complement for a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?

S.M.: It actually works with VPNs. VPNs are typically used by larger corporations with multiple sites that want to connect together a secure Web. We're working on this for next year. For those that are worried about enterprise security, we'll be able to use encryption tunneling or we'll be able to connect them to the virtual private network. The idea is to work with VPNs. What we are is an Internet application that allows you to access a file from the Internet via a Web browser or over the telephone network. We are a network application and we work with applications that work with the Internet.

My friend's wife Caroline does freelance video. She's a TV producer, so she does a lot of odd jobs. They're a real young couple and have a couple of kids. The freelance style works quite well for her because she can spend a lot of time with the kids. She prides herself on taking care of family but also has this thriving business. The nature of that business is that somebody calls and if you're there, you get the job; if not, you don't get the job.

One day she got a call and wasn't there, and the normal voice mail called. She tried reaching the person and was unable to reach them, so when she had to leave she forwarded her business line to Portico. While she was in the grocery store in the checkout line, Portico found her on her cell phone. When she answered it, it turned out that it was a voice mail from this person that she had worked with before and had a job for her. She was able to call her right back. If you get the message from someone, as in this case, you can just say, "Call her back," and Portico will dial the number that the person leaves for you.

So she got the job. An interesting part about the story is that when the lady called her and Portico answered, she was quite taken aback. When Portico said, "Can you tell me your name?" she said, "Oh my God." So when Caroline got the phone call, Portico said, "You have a voice mail message from 'Oh my God'." It's not only a true story, but she made enough money out of the deal to pay for Portico for more than two years.

What we're trying to do is provide urgent content. That's what we're trying to provide-a solution for people who are on the move all the time. When you get a call, as you know, people don't want to wait. They have a contract they want fulfilled or want to buy something, or whatever it is, they just don't want to wait. If you don't answer the phone, they move onto the next one, and the first to connect makes the sale.


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