Virtual Assistance

Two services that promise to help integrate your cell phone, landline, and email.

Newton's Second Law of Telephony, if there were one, would state that for each additional phone number you acquire, the time you spend listening to voice mails, juggling calls, and rummaging through jacket pockets in search of a vibrating Razr is cubed.

Most telecom companies haven't spent much energy trying to reduce that complexity.

(Instead, they're busy disagreeing about what the digits on the dial pad should do when you're listening to your voice mail.) Thankfully, at least two companies, Virtuosity and Callwave, are trying to make life easier, offering services that help manage the daily influx of calls.

Virtuosity markets two "virtual assistants," Maestro and Wildfire. The latter, old-timers will recall, actually debuted more than 10 years ago; Britain's Orange bought it in 2000 but abandoned it last summer. Virtuosity kept the service alive, and happily so since--now much improved--it solves some big problems.

Wildfire and Maestro share several core features: They're driven by voice commands, and they allow you to give out a single phone number, then have all calls to that number forwarded to wherever you are. (They both also have natural-sounding voices that whisper in your ear while you're on a call, telling you who else is trying to reach you.) The end result is like magic: The only phone that rings is the one you're closest to, and the only calls you get are from people you want to talk to.

Maestro, which starts at $29 per month for 100 minutes, is better integrated with the Web. It can read incoming emails to you over the phone, and you can respond with a recorded voice message that gets fired back to the sender as an attachment to an email. Wildfire ($39.95 for 250 minutes) is designed for users on the receiving end of a fusillade of calls; it can switch back and forth between as many as seven conversations.

Callwave takes a different approach, layering extra features onto your existing cell-phone service. Though much less powerful than Maestro or Wildfire, it's also cheaper: The trial version is free, and a "pro" version costs just $3.95 a month. My favorite feature lets you transfer incoming cell calls to a landline, rather than burning up mobile minutes while you're sitting at your desk. You also can "superscreen" calls that come in to your cell phone--eavesdropping as a caller leaves her message. You can decide whether to pick up or let the caller stay in voice mail. Callwave can also send you emails of your voice-mail messages, so you can forward them to anyone with an email account, archive them forever, or listen to them later.

Unfortunately, Callwave doesn't work yet with Sprint PCS or Nextel phones, but CEO Dave Hofstatter hints that that could change soon. Even better, none of the three services requires installing new software on your cell phone; all of them "live" on the phone network and help manage your calls from there. Telephone sanity may be close at hand.

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