Product review: hire an automated assistant

In the movies, important executives have secretaries who screen their calls, know where to find them in case of urgent messages and keep their schedules up-to-date. In real life, with modern telephones and computer applications, you can do 80 per cent of what a secretary used to do. Stop the presses -- General Magic's Portico can handle the other 20 per cent.

Portico stores your voice mail, e-mail, contact database and calendar on the World Wide Web. It also stores rules for when you'll be at your work, home or mobile phones, so it always knows where to find you when callers ring.

But what's truly remarkable about Portico is the way callers interact with it. While it has a Web interface, most of the time you access Portico by talking to it over the phone. That makes Portico an incredibly useful service for highly mobile professionals.

The best way to use the service is to distribute your personal Portico toll-free number as your primary point of contact. When Portico picks up, a voice asks for the caller's name and asks whether the person would like to find you or leave a message.

Your contacts can also send e-mail to your Portico account or forward your e-mail to it. You can set rules to page you when important e-mail or voice mail arrives.

That's what Portico does for people who want to contact you. What can Portico do for you? Besides e-mail and voice mail, Portico includes an address book, calendar, news clips and delayed stock quotes. You can synchronise your current contact databases with Portico using Starfish Software's provided TrueSync Plus software.

To look up a contact, say, "Open my address book. Find Cathy Wright." Portico responds with the person's name, company and phone number, and will dial the number upon your request.

I had no problem learning how to talk to Portico. Nor did Portico have any trouble understanding me when I spoke normally.

The one feature Portico lacks is voice data entry, so that not only could you access your appointments, but you also could add new ones. Given the rate at which speech recognition technology is taking off, I wouldn't be surprised to see such capabilities within the next year.

But even as it stands today, Portico is a valuable and affordable tool for anyone who spends a lot of time out of the office.

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