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Telecom — PacBell Wireless Clients Able to Play With Wildfire

Telecom: ‘Virtual

Assistant’ Talks, Takes

Messages, Has Attitude

For harried San Diego executives and small businesses looking to expand, Pacific Bell Wireless is hoping its latest idea in personal messaging will catch on like Wildfire.

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Wildfire, which debuted in San Diego in early May, is a “virtual assistant” with a friendly female voice. The system works with wireless phones and acts like a personal secretary.

Wildfire can answer phone calls and schedule follow-ups, as well as maintain a list of up to 150 friends, family members and business contacts the system can automatically dial. All this happens without ever touching the phone, through spoken commands given directly through the phone into the Wildfire system.

This makes the phone truly “hands free,” so executives traveling to work or between business meetings can increase productivity without taking their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel, said David Hartnett, director of market development for Wildfire.

That’s much better than current mobile phone users can do, he said.

“I used to have to get off the road so I could call into the voice mail,” Hartnett said. “I’d get a message (and) I’d have to scribble down the number they left me. I’d probably have to listen to the message twice to make sure I got it right. And then I’d have to hang up and then dial that number simply to return a call.”

Small business on a tight budget can also benefit from Wildfire. The system does the same thing a traditional office assistant would do , including screening calls and sorting them by importance.

The speech recognizers in the voice-activated system aren’t fazed by thick accents, static or bad connections that wireless phones sometimes have, Hartnett said.

The system also has a virtual personality. Hartnett referred to Wildfire as a “she” and described the system as “efficient, a little bit sassy in some places, and fairly hip and forward-thinking.”

Different cultures require slightly different personalities, Hartnett noted. The British version of Wildfire is much more reserved, while the French and Italian versions of Wildfire are more informal than the American version, he said.

Pac Bell will be offering the service, which costs $9.95 monthly, wherever its mobile phones are sold, as well as through direct mail to current Pac Bell Wireless subscribers.

Hartnett described the initial target market for Wildfire as small- and medium-sized businesses. He hopes over time it becomes a mass-market item embraced by the majority of mobile phone users.

Wildfire launched in Europe in July and has been in use in Los Angeles since February. So far, the response in Los Angeles has been positive, as users respond to its usefulness during drive times and what Hartnett called the “cool factor.”

Brian Brokowski, a local spokesman for Wildfire, said San Diego was chosen as a market because of its proximity to Los Angeles, where the service is already available. Also, locals are already very savvy about technical gadgets and spend a good deal of time on the road, he said.


A Talk on the Wildfire Side

A typical session with Wildfire would sound something like this:

USER: Wildfire?

WILDFIRE: Here I am.

USER: Where were we?

WILDFIRE: The first item is a message from Mary Jensen.

USER: Sort them.

WILDFIRE: Sort them how?

USER: New ones first.

WILDFIRE: The first item is a high-priority message from the workplace of Jack Smith.

USER: What’s it say?

(Wildfire plays message)

WILDFIRE: Message from Alex Jones.

USER: Throw it away.

WILDFIRE: Done. Message from Curt Frank.

USER: Give them a call.

WILDFIRE: At the number they left me?

USER: Yes.

(Wildfire dials)

USER: That will be all for now.

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