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June 1999

Virtual Assistants For Hire:A Hands-On Survey

Imagine Fred Flintstone holding a mobile telephone. Inside, a small bird reads aloud Fred’s e-mail and appointments from a computer screen. That bird is performing the job of a virtual assistant. Virtual assistants, the trend du jour, were predicted for a future in which robots and computers would replace secretaries and telephone operators. Such products are appearing from both telecommunications giants and small start-ups, and they span a range of functionality, price and popularity.

Two categories are emerging. First, there are the true cyber-assistants, who keep track of schedules, find and call entries from an address book, read your messages over the telephone, manage and deliver news to your inbox, and take commands through natural speech recognition. Second, there are less expensive, more streamlined products that are controlled by touchtones, not voice. These offer only partial functionality, commonly offering mechanical-sounding text-to-speech translation of e-mail messages and basic follow-me tasks. Products exist in both categories that sell directly to end-users and are designed for resellers and the enterprise.

With this survey, we aim to cover as many of the virtual assistants as we’re aware of, complete with reports of our trial account testing, feature lists, and pricing information where available. The required criteria are that the service must be accessible with a telephone and it must offer more than just voice-based e-mail. This weeds out dozens of services that offer only Web-based e-mail, unified messaging or a voice follow-me/notification service without the TUI. Pricing, Web addresses, and more detailed feature information are explained in the chart.

Full-Featured Virtual Assistants
Currently there are just a handful of companies whose products we deem "full-featured." These products stand out for their range of features and because they cater to the high-end road warrior. Unfortunately, high prices also distinguish this category, whose text-to-speech and speech recognition engines adopt human inflections and phrases.

Portico (General Magic) is probably the most popular system available for end users or resellers. It offers excellent documentation, which is an important factor for evaluating virtual assistants. The 158-page manual explains nearly every feature in detailed and simple language. There is quick start guide, a wallet reference card, and online help through the TUI. Portico also offers a desktop GUI. Both interfaces are divided into five "books" – mailbox, address book, calendar, newspaper, and stock report.

The system speaks in a pleasant voice, and understands over a million combinations of words and phrases. Voice barge-in works well. If you pause in mid-thought, Portico will try to understand what you’ve said so far, and it will either take action or ask for more information. In our testing, we found Portico to be the most advanced and most intuitive system, but unfortunately, it’s also the most expensive system. The pricing is complicated, but it’s explained at the General Magic web site. For individual users, prices range from $17.95 to $149.95/month.

Webley (Webley Systems) speaks with a British accent, making it a classy system, but that doesn’t help road warriors become any more efficient. Webley lacks TUI online help and message notification, which are both important features that most users demand. Webley stands out for its superb conference calling features and its relatively low price point. Services start from $9.95 to $14.95/month.

Wildfire (Wildfire Communications) is Portico’s main competitor. Wildfire was the first product in this space, and it’s a system implemented and resold by carriers. Wildfire has most of the same features as Portico, but there is only a wallet card for documentation (although some users and system administrators see this as an advantage, not a drawback). Wildfire’s barge-in feature only works within messages. Unlike Portico, contacts cannot be synchronized with a PC-based manager like Goldmine, ACT!, and Outlook. However, Wildfire is not as expensive as Portico, it’s slightly easier to learn, and the voice commands can be more blunt than Portico’s. For many users, a direct voice command like "next message" is easier to learn than Portico’s several variations of "Read me my messages." (Portico does offer some simpler commands, but the developers encourage users to speak naturally.) Not everyone wants a machine to act human. Wildfire pricing for end users ranges from about $20 to $40/month; pricing for carriers and enterprise implementations can be obtained by from Wildfire.

Partial-Featured Assistants
If you’re not a high-end road warrior, but the virtual assistant concept appeals to you, then the middle ground is partial-featured assistants. These systems cost less than high-end systems – costs range from free to about $20 monthly, with some exceptions for services that allow for high-usage subscribers. Also, pricing plans for these systems usually have just two or three options, unlike the largely � la carte methods of full-featured systems. Partial-featured assistants are usually uncomplicated and easy to learn. Occasionally they offer speech recognition, voice mail, and news/stock reports, but mostly they just offer e-mail text-to-speech and related features. About half of these products also use Web-based inboxes.

Assistants With Speech Recognition
CoolMail Platinum
CoolMail Platinum (Planetary Motion) is the most advanced of CoolMail’s four services, and it’s the only one that offers speech recognition. CoolMail Platinum, at $14.95/month, also offers monthly usage reports, voice-controlled speed dial, contact management, appointment book, document sending, eight megabytes of message storage, and all the features of CoolMail’s lesser services, discussed below.

MyInBox (CrossMedia Networks) is one of the easier-to-use services available. It offers speech recognition, text-to-speech e-mail, personalized reply messages, dictated audio replies, mail forwarding, user-specific forwarding, filtering and prioritizing, telephone and pager notification, "smart text" (a feature like Microsoft Word’s auto-correct), voice prompts that are adjustable based on the user’s preferences, context-sensitive help and volume/speed control. Services start from $9.95 to $14.95/month.

PocketOffice (ATG Technologies) would not be unique if it didn’t offer PAT services. PAT stands for Personal Assistant Technician — a live operator, available all day long, every day of the year. ATG’s PATs serve as personal secretaries, and this kind of service costs extra. It also raises a security issue when it comes to your messages, contact list, etc. PocketOffice itself is similar to most virtual assistant services, offering find-me/follow-me, outbound voice/fax/e-mail, text-to-speech and send-to-fax message retrieval, etc. PocketOffice pricing ranges from $9.95 to $34.95/month, plus various activation and options fees.

Tornado Electronic Messaging System (Tornado Development) was reviewed by TMC Labs in the October 1998 issue of Internet Telephony magazine. TEMS is unique because of its numerous Web-based client systems: options are available for Java, HTML plug-ins, and direct mailing to inboxes. Like many services, TEMS offers several pricing plans which start at $9.95 to $14.95/month. We also found that TEMS has exceptional technical support staff.

Assistants Without Speech Recognition
CoolMail Bronze, Silver, Gold
Unlike CoolMail’s Platinum service (referenced above), the Bronze, Silver and Gold services do not offer speech recognition, but they are less expensive and more appropriate for some users. All of the CoolMail levels offer toll-free access, voice reply, news and e-mail. CoolMail Bronze is free for up to one hour a month, and costs ten cents a minute beyond that. Silver is $2.95/month and offers message groups, filters, and PC contact manager synchronization. Gold is $8.95/month and offers unlimited message capacity, IP faxing, voiceprint identification, advanced filtering, and pager/telephone notification. All three services have other options as well, for a nominal fee. There is also a CoolMail Corporate option.

E-mail Gold
E-mail Gold (CommTouch) is a $12.50/month service that offers unlimited voice and fax capacity, e-mail text-to-speech, a contact manager, TUI-based online help, filtering and follow-me and pager notification. CommTouch also offers a lesser service called "E-mail On The Go," which offers e-mail over the telephone, but not voice or fax messaging, for $2.50/month – perhaps the least expensive service available for such functionality.

The Electronic Secretarial Administrator (StarTouch International) includes StarTouch’s long-distance service and a good instruction manual, as well as numerous extra features. Despite good documentation and a full complement of find-me/follow-me and pager/telephone message notification, at $39.95/month, plus a $100 activation charge, ESA is very expensive compared to the competition.

Infinite Voice
Infinite Voice (Infinite Technologies) is included in this survey because it allows system users to check and to send e-mail with a TUI, but it’s a product that you buy and implement in the enterprise, not a product designed for subscriptions. Licenses begin at $249 for a 10-user copy. Features include TUI and GUI messaging, fax routing, comprehensive documentation, and telephone notification.

IRIS/Unified Messaging Plus
IRIS/Unified Messaging Plus (Amteva Technologies) IRIS, which stands for "Internet-Ready Intelligent Services," offers every major feature in its category except for a contact manager. It comes with good documentation, pager and telephone message notification, and find-me/follow-me. There are many pricing factors, ranging from $10 to $39/month.

JFAX.COM E-mail-By-Phone and JFAX.COM Unified Messaging (JFAX.COM, Inc.) are two virtual assistant services that evolved out of JFAX’s original fax-over-IP product. JFAX E-mail-By-Phone is typical of its class. It offers what its name implies, including reply and fax delivery, as well as compatibility with AOL, CompuServe, and Yahoo! Mail, not just POP3 systems. This is impressive, because mainstream e-mail products typically integrate only with POP3, MAPI, etc. E-mail-By-Phone costs $9.50/month for 30 minutes, plus a $5.00 activation fee. JFAX Unified Messaging incorporates all of the E-mail-By-Phone features, plus IP faxing and a personal telephone number It also costs more — $12.50/month, plus a $15.00 activation charge. Both services have 24-hour help.

With choices of � la carte plans and pricing which ranges from $2.50 to $11.95/month, MailCall (MailCall, Inc.) is one of the easiest subscription plans. News services, message filtering, and even multiple voices and languages are available. MailCall also lets users configure several e-mail accounts under one MailCall account, and it’s available for the enterprise and for resale.

MailTel (Acorn Communications) is a good product for resale, but we found one major flaw. It only polls for new messages once an hour. This isn’t bad if someone messages you at 1:58, but it’s terrible if someone messages you at 2:01. Otherwise, MailTel offers pager and telephone notification, speed and volume control for the text-to-speech engine, and the ability to forward messages to Outlook or Notes. Pricing is set by individual service providers. Pricing for providers can be obtained from MailTel.

Message Center
Message Center (TelePost) is part of a larger package that also includes Conference Center (reviewed in the October 1998 issue of CTI magazine) and Presentation Center. While most of the usual virtual assistant features are incorporated, Message Center’s best feature is its "RingMeNow" button. This allows callers to click the button on your personal Web site, which then initiates a call to them. Normally, the kind of script requires expert Web authoring knowledge. Message Center is worth its subscription cost just to get this feature. There is also a good contact manager, and find-me/follow-me is available as well. Prices range from $14.95 to $99.95 monthly.

Orchestrate Office/Orchestrate Personal Assistant
Orchestrate’s Office and Personal Assistant products (Premiere Technologies) both offer voice mail, text-to-speech e-mail, fax delivery, reply, solid documentation, and find-me/follow-me. Office also features a Web-based contact manager and a "Click & Conference" option; Personal Assistant features message delivery to your inbox and voice reply. Both services offer pager notification, and versions are available for enterprise use. Prices range from $9.95 to $29.95/month, plus activation fees.

A Glimpse Of The Future
No one knows exactly where these services will be in the next two to five years. Possibly, they will be offered through CLECs and ILECs, just like call waiting or three-way calling is offered now. Perhaps the features of these services will be a standard part of tomorrow’s voice/data switches (IP-PBXs). Or maybe we’ll all carry mobile telephone/PDA "communicators" (like Qualcomm’s pdQ or Nokia’s 9000 series).

No matter how you look at it, the merger between virtual assistant services and communicator devices is intriguing. More companies could be jumping on the virtual assistant bandwagon as you read this. For example, Lucent and Motorola are both developing similar products, and you can expect any entry from such established companies to be of the highest quality. Some ideas that these companies are thinking of include messages grouped by sender, automatic building of contacts based on data scraping from inbound messages, voice mail interruptions and continuation from where you left off, and more. More information about these product groups can be found at Lucent   and at TMCnet.com.

The key of virtual assistant technology is combining some of these technologies and untying users from their office. Users who travel often and have intensive contact management and messaging needs may feel that Portico’s $150 service is a bargain, but users who just want the occasional e-mail over the telephone may do best with a $2.50/month service. We’d like to hear your success or failure stories with any of these products, whether you’re an end user, carrier, or reseller. Ultimately, the high-end features like continuous speech recognition, voice barge-in, synchronized contact management and device notification will find their way into lower-cost services, along with many user options like voice, language, security (most services already use secure Web sites), and more. Whether you decide to pick one of the above products now or wait a few months, virtual assistants seem as likely to find their way to your toolbox, just like pagers, mobile telephones, e-mail and voice mail.

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