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General Magic details strategy

The company previews a service that lets mobile workers retrieve email, voice mail, and faxes using any information appliance.

SAN DIEGO--Putting some specifics on a new strategy, General Magic (GMGC) is previewing a subscription-based service that lets mobile workers retrieve email, voice mail, and faxes using any information appliance, including a cellular phone.

Called Serengeti, the service is set to go into field trials in late May with about 200 users to test technology and do market research before a 1998 launch.

Chairman and CEO Steve Markman, who has slashed General Magic's payroll from 280 to 138 since September, indicated at the Internet Showcase conference that the company felt pressured by Wall Street and high-tech analysts to reveal more about the new strategy even though it's nowhere near ready for prime time.

General Magic's stock slid lower today to close at 1, off 1/16 from yesterday and near its all-time low price.

General Magic announced an alliance with Starfish Software, former Borland CEO Philippe Kahn's company, to incorporate Starfish's personal information manager software into the Serengeti service.

Markman said other technology partnerships are in the works, along with a distribution strategy, but he declined to discuss details before announcements this summer.

Although it's not promising broad commercial service before next year, General Magic hopes to get a scaled-down version for small companies sooner. Markman notes that Serengeti's basic technology could be used inside large companies or tailored for a consumer offering.

In the meantime, General Magic must survive on $67 million in the bank as of December 31 plus paltry revenues from its Magic Cap operating system--version 3.0 is nearly finished for still-unannounced hardware partners--and Telescript, its now Java-savvy mobile agent technology.

Serengeti is the first visible evidence of Markman's new revenue model for General Magic. In February, he said in a statement, "We are moving away from complete reliance on licensing fees and royalties and moving toward direct revenue from products and services."

The closest thing to Serengeti today is the Wildfire voice mail and call processing service, but that's just the start of what Markman envisions.

"What they do is just one percent of what we will do," Markman said. Serengeti will let users access personal data by phone, pager, fax, Web browser, PalmPilot, or other handheld devices running Windows CE.

"We've been as low as you can get," he added, "and we are on our way back."