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General Magic shelters voice, data

The company says its new Portico service, formerly code-named Serengeti, will be available starting July 30 through resellers.

General Magic today said its new Portico service, formerly code-named Serengeti, will be available nationwide starting July 30 through resellers.

The service, to be offered via resellers, lets users access their voice mail, email, personal calendar, contacts database, stock market data, and news feeds using voice commands over a telephone.

"Today is the culmination of a long-held vision--to build the market for integrated voice and data applications," said Steve Markman, who 18 months ago put the unprofitable but high-profile Silicon Valley firm on the course of offering the Portico service.

"It is not only a useful service but an extremely easy-to-use service. It has intelligent rules and filters to preprocess the information for you so you only get the information you define as important," Markman added. "We save people time and money."

The service will be offered through resellers, including cellular providers and voice mail companies, telecommunications carriers, and manufacturers of portable computing devices like the PalmPilot or devices based on Windows CE.

Carriers slated to begin Portico trials in the next 30 days, according to General Magic, are Bell Atlantic Mobile, BellSouth Cellular, Cellular One in the San Francisco area, and Triton Communications, an AT&T unit. No other resellers were announced, and no announcements were made on device manufacturers.

The service is built on General Magic's magicTalk platform, which means partners can customize the service for their markets using a software developer kit. In addition, the company will create new services based on the platform to offer to high-growth markets.

However, Markman said General Magic will not license the magicTalk itself and said developer kits will be available only to partners, not third-party developers in general. However, he predicted that partners would use independent developers to create services for resellers.

Markman declined to speculate on Portico revenue except to say he expects it to appear by the company's fourth quarter, with its real impact in 1999.

No details on pricing were released, although the company expects prices to be structured as a flat monthly fee that covers a fixed number of minutes, with per-minute charges for additional usage.

"Carriers care about air time, not services," said Alan Reiter, a wireless analyst and editor of the Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing newsletter. Reiter spoke at General Magic's press conference for the company.

The potential market for the service, he said, is 58 million U.S. users of cellular and PCS phones, a market large enough to require a multitiered distribution strategy like the one General Magic is using.

"Portico reminds me a little bit of Yahoo with a virtual assistant--it's a portal to a variety of different kids of information," Reiter added.

The event also served as a public unveiling for what Markman called "the new General Magic, a market-focused company."

He added: "This is clearly a robust strategy--a much bigger play than anyone thought we'd be executing by this time."