Xenakis on Technology: Beyond Voice Mail

Two services act as automated personal assistants.
John XenakisNovember 22, 2000

If you miss the good old days when a secretary answered your phone calls and tracked you down when one of them was urgent, then you may be interested in two services that provide these capabilities in an automated fashion.

Orchestrate 2000 from Voicecom Communications Inc. and Wildfire from Wildfire Communications Inc., each cost $10-20 per month per user, depending on features, and provide some of the services of a live assistant. The two services have one thing in common: If someone calls your number, an automated voice offers to try to reach you at whatever number you’ve previously indicated you might be at. If you answer, you hear something like, “Joe Smith is holding for you; do you accept the call?” A caller who doesn’t reach you can leave a voicemail message.

Orchestrate 2000

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When someone calls your Orchestrate phone number, he first hears a brief recorded message from you, and the following in an efficient female voice: “To call your party, press 1; to leave a voice mail message, press 2; to send a fax mail message, press 3; for assistance press 0.” If asked to locate you, Orchestrate simultaneously calls up to three phone numbers you’ve specified.

The designers of Orchestrate have built a lot of power into the system by the technique of tying phone capabilities to the Web.

You’re given a Web page on which a variety of features are consolidated, including features which duplicate what you can do over the phone:

  • You can retrieve your voice mail messages over the phone, or you can retrieve them from your Web page, listening to them with a Real Audio Player.
  • If the caller sends you a fax, it’s available as a graphic on your Web page.
  • You’re also given an E-Mail address and can retrieve messages from your Web page. Out in the field, you can retrieve them via the phone, and the system will read them to you.
  • You can even set up conference calls. You set up the list of phone numbers from your Web page and click on a button. Orchestrate calls your phone first, then each of the other conferees in turn, until everyone’s together.
  • Your Web page can also have stock quotes, news headlines, and local weather reports, giving you a home page that simultaneously provides your news, voicemail, faxes, and E- Mail in one place.

Sign up for Orchestrate 2000 by going to The cost is $19.95 per month, or $9.95 for a version with fewer features. You can make long distance calls through Orchestrate for 4.9 cents per minute.

Orchestrate is used by 25 employees of Elk Corp., an Atlanta manufacturer of retail roofing. “It gives us the ability to respond immediately to customers’ needs,” says regional manager Frank Kelly. “Our competition sometimes takes days just to return a phone call.”


The fun feature about Wildfire is that you can talk to and carry on a voice conversation with your automated assistant, not just push touch tone buttons. To have “her” play a voicemail message for you, you say, “What’d it say?” When you’re done, you say “Goodbye, Wildfire.”

If you place a call through Wildfire, you say “Call” and then dictate the number. If you’re in the middle of any call, you can say “Wildfire,” and she’ll come on the line and ask what you want.

Wildfire is being specifically targeted to cell phone and mobile users, for the obvious reason that you can manage your phone calls while you’re driving without having to punch buttons.

Unfortunately, its availability is very limited. The developer, Wildfire Communications Inc. ( of Lexington, Mass., has been trying to market the system to large companies and telecommunications firms for several years, but hasn’t made a lot of headway, although it’s still trying. Currently, in the U.S., the only way to get this service is through Pacific Bell Wireless in Los Angeles or San Diego, although PacBell says it plans to extend coverage to northern California and Las Vegas next year.

“Wildfire’s service is very mature — they’ve been around for almost 10 years,” says Kevin Werbach, analyst and editor of newsletter Release 1.0. “They were ahead of the market when they first launched, but the voice recognition wasn’t good enough, and users weren’t ready for an automated assistant. But now with growth of Internet and mobile services, people are more interested. Also, people’s time is tighter than ever, and business users in particular are more willing to pay for it.”

Wildfire was acquired earlier this year by the London based wireless telecommunications firm Orange plc, which is now part of France Telecom. As a result, Wildfire is more widely available in the U.K., France and Italy than in the U.S.

According to market development manager Mike Harnett, when the Wildfire automated attendant speaks to you in each of these countries, “she” uses a personality appropriate to that country, as determined by focus groups.

“In the U.S., she’s friendly, productive, sometimes funny, sometimes a little bit sassy,” says Harnett. “In the U.K., she’s more formal, because that’s what the U.K. market is more comfortable with. The French version is more informal, and the Italian version has reached whole new levels of sassiness.”

When I asked Harnett for an example of sassiness during our phone call, he called up Wildfire and said to her, “I’m depressed.” The response was, “YOU’RE depressed?? I live in a box!”

To sign up for the PacBell Wildfire service, go to, select “Los Angeles,” and perform a site search on “Wildfire.” The service is available for $9.95 per month as an add-on to PacBell Wireless’ existing service. (As the result of the merger of the wireless divisions of SBC Communications and BellSouth, PacBell Wireless will be part of Cingular Wireless,, as of January 2001.)

Voice Recognition

“Voice recognition” is the technology that allows a computer to understand human speech. I’ve been following this technology closely since 1985, when artificial intelligence guru Raymond Kurzweil ( first announced that he would have a 10,000 word voice recognition word processor on the market by the end of 1986, a goal which he didn’t achieve until 1997. I review these products regularly, and will do so again soon here.

A problem that Wildfire has had for years is its voice recognition. It’s much easier for Wildfire to recognize words than for a general word processor, since Wildfire has to recognize only 100 or so different words compared to the 10,000 words of Kurzweil’s system.

My experience with Wildfire is that as long as I was sitting in a quiet room, its voice recognition works remarkably well, although there was an anomaly or two. (For example, “she” could never recognize the word “twelve,” no matter how many times I said it. I finally figured out that I had to say “one two.”)

Another problem is that Wildfire’s target market of mobile users are usually calling from noisy environments like cars and trains. In that environment, the voice recognition is not as certain.

However, that’s changing. Voice recognition technology has been getting noticeably better every year for a number of years, and Wildfire has been getting better along with it.

Now, Voicecom is planning to incorporate voice recognition into Orchestrate, according to Daryl Engelman, executive vice president of strategic development. “The technology is finally getting good enough,” he says. “Voice recognition in Orchestrate is going to be available in the second half of 2001.”

(Send John Xenakis your questions and comments for Xenakis on Technology (XOT) to [email protected])