Vera Goes Digital
Our road warrior test-drives the latest in digital personal assistants. The bottom line: don't fire your secretary yet
In movies from the 1940s and 1950s, you can tell a corporate titan by his secretary. This woman had to do much more than type and file; she was an extension of her boss's will, a personal assistant paid to drop everything and attend to his every need. "Vera, get me the latest figures on borax futures," he would command. Barely had Vera reappeared at her desk, pencil in mouth, arms loaded down with manila folders, when her boss would be back on the intercom: "Vera, have a dozen roses delivered to my wife." "Vera, make lunch reservations for two at Delmonico's." "Vera, get me Smithers on the line." That last one always killed me: here was a man too busy to flip through his address book and dial the telephone. You hated him, and yet you envied him. What must it be like to have someone at your beck and call like that?
I'll be able to tell you shortly. I recently signed up with Quixi, a sort of digital secretary for busy travelers. For about $20 a month, I can pick up my cell phone, press a rapid-dial key, and bark my wishes to a Quixi "helper." The helpers can tell me, say, how to get back to the airport from my hotel. They can charge flowers to my credit card and have them delivered. They'll also do "M-commerce" (the M standing for mobile) Web searches for whatever I absolutely must have, ASAP. To date, Quixi subscribers' M-commerce requests have ranged from the sublime (a 1985 Bordeaux) to the ridiculous (a desktop dartboard).
Best of all, I can say, "Get me Smithers on the line," and lo and behold, they get him. In the age of cellular phones, getting Smithers on the line has become less a matter of status than of convenience, not to mention safety. When I'm driving 70 mph down the freeway, I don't want to be rummaging through my briefcase for my PalmPilot or the file containing Smithers's phone number.
How does the Quixi helper know Smithers's phone number? Because when you signed up for the service, you downloaded Quixi software that enabled you to electronically dispatch the contents of your address book -- be it on a Palm device or in an E-mail program such as Outlook Express -- to Quixi's virtual switchboard. Keeping the listings up-to-date is a simple matter of clicking on the Quixi icon on your cell phone's screen and then clicking Synchronize, whereupon any new names and numbers are sent, through the Internet, to Quixi. (The process is similar for users with PDAs and contact-management software.)
I tried out my personal assistant last week, en route to a backpacking trip in the mountains with my husband, Ed. In the course of our meandering conversations, we came up with a list of things we wanted to know right then and there, our own version of borax futures: What percentage of one's body weight should a backpack weigh? What is the highest elevation from which a human being has jumped from a plane into the ocean and survived? Why was Password host Allen Ludden buried in Mineral Point, Wis.?
I started with the last one and contacted Quixi. The clicking sounds of someone typing on a keyboard could be heard in the background. I imagined my helper whizzing around the Web, scanning Allen Ludden fan sites. Finally, she said, "We can't call anyone that's not on your contact list." Apparently, she had been searching my contact list for Allen Ludden (or perhaps Betty White -- who knows?). It turned out that, aside from taking M-commerce requests, Quixi wouldn't do anything on the Web for you. It was as if Vera, when asked for the borax figures, had looked up from her typewriter and said, "Get it yourself."
Undaunted, we then asked for directions. "Ask them where the closest Dairy Queen is," suggested Ed. Ed has a soft spot for soft serve. "Tell them we're on 580 East, somewhere before Modesto."
Aside from taking M-commerce requests, Quixi wouldn't do anything on the Web. It was as if Vera had looked up from her typewriter and said, "Get it yourself."
My helper said it would take from one to four hours to get back to us with directions of any kind. Ed looked glum. One to four hours was a long time to wait for an ice-cream cone. The helper explained that Quixi could not yet provide real-time directions, only pretrip directions. The real-time program is in its pilot phase, and apparently the pilot is still flying paper airplanes in the backyard.
Quixi plans to be real-time-ready by early 2001. But you may be able to do Quixi one better before then. More and more cars and SUVs are being outfitted with helper systems, consisting of a built-in global positioning system (GPS) and a cellular connection to a 24-hour adviser. General Motors Corp. has 32 different cars outfitted with such an adviser, called the OnStar system. With it, drivers press a button and ask a live adviser for what they want. Using the car's GPS, the adviser will be able to locate drivers on the road and provide them with real-time directions, heard over the car's stereo speakers. The adviser can also make reservations, and an OnStar concierge will book same-day tickets for popular shows.
Starting next month, the 2001 GM line will come with the option of a voice-activated cell-phone and Internet connection, called the OnStar Virtual Advisor. The service enables drivers to talk on a cell-phone connection hands-free. In place of Vera at her desk in the next room, there's a microphone hidden in the car's ceiling or in the rearview mirror. At the push of a button, a voice prompts you for a phone number, which you tell to your mirror, feeling only mildly silly, and then the number is dialed for you. And voil√, Smithers is on the line -- or rather, on your car speakers. There's even a text-to-speech engine in the system that will, at your command, translate E-mail into a digitized voice and read it aloud to you while you drive.
Somewhere past Modesto, I wanted to call my editor to ask whether maybe we should be doing a column on the 2001 GM line instead. I pressed my Quixi speed-dial number. "Get me Elaine Appleton Grant on the line," I said.
My helper couldn't find the name. "When did you insert that name, ma'am?" she asked. "Because it can take up to 24 hours to show up."
"I synchronized my contact list on Monday," I said, sounding very James Bond. It was now Wednesday.
"Hunh," she said. Then she said that in fact none of my contacts were coming up on her screen. I asked to speak to Quixi's public relations man, Alex Pachetti, and ruin his day.
"There's no Alex here," said my helper. "Maybe he's in the New York office."
"Could you put me through?"
"Of course," she said helpfully. "What's his number?"
"I don't have his number."
My voice was beginning to take on a certain strident edge. "I left his number at home because I thought I had this wonderful new service whereby I could just press a button and get Alex Pachetti on the phone."
"You do have that service," she said brightly. "There just aren't any listings coming up for you."
I turned to my rearview mirror. "Can you believe this?"
As it turned out, I'd been sent the wrong version of Quixi's software, and my contact list had failed to upload. I installed the new version the day my husband and I got back from our trip.
The next afternoon, driving home from work, I pressed the Quixi speed-dial on my phone. "Get me Smithers on the line," I said. Under the name Smithers in my address book, I had entered my husband's phone number. "Mr. Smithers for you," said the woman promptly and courteously. It was worth 20 bucks.
When she's in her office, new Road Warrior Mary Roach can be reached at email@example.com.
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